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REILLY: Single-sex dorms right for Catholic University

Quelling sexual activity and binge drinking comports with religious identity

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President John Garvey of the Catholic University of America (CUA) got it exactly right and set an important example when he announced plans last week to shift entirely to single-sex dorms. Not only is the action consistent with the university's Catholic mission - and arguably necessary for that reason alone - it is equally a matter of common sense. There is a wealth of accumulating social-science data that confirms the terrible, lifelong impact that the college "party" lifestyle can have on bright young men and women.

CUA is setting an example for all college educators and especially those in Catholic higher education.

Sadly, many Catholic colleges and universities are not so different from their secular counterparts with regard to campus life. Few Catholic campuses today offer only single-sex residences, although many make it an option for a minority of students, usually freshmen. At CUA, all students have had the option of single-sex dorms, but just six of the university's 17 residence halls and 25 modular housing units are currently restricted to men or women.

Mr. Garvey is changing that. In the fall, all incoming freshmen with the exception of honors students will live in single-sex dorms - four halls for women, three for men. Another four single-sex residences will be reserved for upper-level students, doubling the number this year.

It won't stop there: The incoming class of 2015 will never have the option of coed dorms, as CUA will expand its single-sex housing each year until coed arrangements are no longer tolerated at the U.S. bishops' flagship university.

On the one hand, the change clearly is related to the university's religious convictions. CUA is a Catholic institution led by several cardinals and bishops, which awards Vatican-approved theology degrees. Since Pope John Paul II issued "ExcordeEcclesiae," a 1990 document defining Catholic higher education, college leaders and bishops have been working to renew the Catholic identity that was greatly compromised over the past 50 years.

But providing a wholesome living arrangement is a public health concern regardless of religious convictions. Colleges, government agencies and health policy experts have been struggling for years to reduce underage drinking on campuses by implementing orientation programs, banning alcohol sales and advertisements, offering alternative entertainment, etc. Sexually transmitted diseases are a serious health crisis among college students; the Centers for Disease Control and prevention estimates that nearly one in four college students has an STD.

In a forthcoming report for the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education, a division of the Cardinal Newman Society, sociologists Anne Hendershott and Nicholas Dunn warn of serious "psychological, spiritual and physical damages" that can result from the college "hookup" culture.

"Sexually transmitted diseases, unintended pregnancies and abortions - as well as a long list of psychological costs, including poor self-esteem, depression and sadness - have been correlated with the emergence of the hookup culture on campus," the authors report in their study, "The Hook-Up Culture on Catholic Campuses." They cite "particularly the role of alcohol in encouraging and expanding" student sexual activity.

Christopher Kaczor made similar points at a CUA symposium in April, coincidentally while Mr. Garvey was making up his mind to shift to single-sex dorms. Mr. Kaczor, a philosophy professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, argued strongly that single-sex dorms are the answer to the pervasive problems of student drinking and promiscuity.

He cites the work of Boston University researcher Thomas C. Harford and Harvard University's Henry Wechsler, who have found dramatic differences in alcohol consumption between students in coed and single-sex residence halls. Brian Willoughby and Jason Carroll of Brigham Young University found similar results with regard to both drinking and sexual activity, which they describe as "risk-taking" behaviors.

In their 2009 study published in the JournalofAmericanCollegeHealth, Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Carroll reported that students in coed halls were more than twice as likely to drink alcohol at least weekly and to engage in binge drinking. They also were more likely to use pornography and have "permissive attitudes" toward sexual activity. Students in coed dorms were more than twice as likely (12.6 percent) to have had three or more sexual partners in the past year than students in single-sex dorms (4.9 percent).

Surprisingly, Mr. Willoughby and Mr. Carroll found these differences to be significant even when controlling for students' religion and other variables. They also concluded that student selection - meaning that the "good" guys and gals are more likely to choose single-sex housing - did not appear to significantly affect the results.

That's not to say that Mr. Garvey's decision is not also a good public-relations move. As a local Catholic parent of five children, I'm thrilled to know that CUA offers single-sex housing. Parents around the country are no doubt similarly grateful for Mr. Garvey's concern for our sons and daughters.

Now, if only other colleges will follow.

Patrick J. Reilly is president of the Cardinal Newman Society.

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