UNIVERSITY of Southern California sophomore Rebecca Robinson has taken a quantum leap in lifestyle this year. She moved from the freshman dorm party scene to the academic salon environment of Embassy Residential College, where faculty, graduates, and undergraduates room, dine, and socialize together."There's a world of difference here. Last year I was with all freshmen. This year, my roommate is a PhD candidate in psychology and she's a lot older, but she's really cool," says Ms. Robinson. An honors student with a hefty dual major in molecular biology and Russian, the Elko, Nev., native says she's learned at Embassy that "basically you can have fun and still study." In the faded elegance of the grand, old downtown Embassy Hotel - bought complete with its antique furniture - USC housing officials are trying to re-create a form of the traditional residential colleges historically associated with British higher education. At Oxford and Cambridge Universities, for example, students and some faculty live and dine together in the same buildings where classes are held. "It's the oldest idea in Western higher education but it's only 60 years old in America ... and that has pretty much been limited to the elite East Coast schools. The new wrinkle now is that colleges that had never considered it before are doing it," says Terry B. Smith, Dean of the Colleges at Northeast Missouri State University in Kirksville, Mo. Dr. Smith is organizing the first conference of residential college administrators next spring and estimates there are at least 50 US schools now offering this kind of student residence. He says the recent trend toward residential colleges is based on new developments in higher education that have caused private schools to offer more amenities to compete for tuition dollars and rural public colleges to market themselves as "safe havens" for students. Harvard University's house system and Yale's colleges, formed in the 1930s and intended to house the entire undergraduate populations, have been the models for US residential colleges. But there is a broad range of interpretation of the concept in the US. In the systems at Harvard and Yale, housing units are specially built with lounges and classrooms in addition to dorm rooms and offer their own academic counseling, libraries, dining facilities, and even china and crests. Others simply involve having faculty affiliates living among students in remodeled facilities in old-fashioned dorm buildings. College housing officials explain that the idea is to create a sense of broad-based community and extend the concept of academic life beyond the classroom. "I survey graduating seniors and ask them to cite the most important college experience, and the large majority of things that come up are out-of-class experiences," says Kristine Dillon, associate vice president for student affairs at USC. "They're growing up, becoming autonomous adults, and that life experience between 18 and 24 is where new ideas are explored in the classroom and are acted out." So the residential experience can be a valuable extension of the classroom, she says. "We mean [by residential college] it's a place where students are having a lot of exposure to faculty and a place where students are encouraged to stay, something that's part of their USC identity." USC's Embassy Residential College houses 260 students - 70 percent of them graduate students - charging about $2,400 per student in a double room for a school year. A regular double dorm room costs about $3,800 per student. Because of the autonomy of the large graduate population at Embassy, only four dinners a week are served. Meal contracts require payment for a minimum of two dinners a week - at a cost of $2,100 a school year. But, because students like the community-building atmosphere of meals, says Ms. Dillon, they've asked that meals be served five nights a week and that three of them be mandatory. @BODYTEXT = HE beaux-arts style building was designed in 1914 to be the "Algonquin of the West and its architectural drama is the perfect, rich setting for the salon-atmosphere faculty residents are trying to shape. The expansive building with arches and stained glass includes a computer room with 16 personal computers, a 1,600-seat, professional-quality theater, a dance floor and bar called the "mambo room," which was the set for the television movie about Desi Arnaz, dance and music rooms, a board room, and a cafe .Faculty masters Kevin Starr and Florence Clark - both respected scholars in their respective fields of history and occupational science - talk about developing a culture around the off-campus building. "Undergraduates have to write a statement to get in. And we handpick the RAs [resident advisors] because we're trying to transfer their social-recreational role to a more academic tutorial role. We want an admixture of societal activities that are elevating; we're trying to build a culture here," explains Professor Clark. Professor Starr, who as a former senior tutor in Harvard's Eliot House has a working background in how the system should work, developed Embassy's "senior common room." Here each Monday, he arranges for three or four faculty members to visit and have drinks with a small group of students in a setting with couches and fireplace. Later the faculty members attend dinner in Embassy's cheerful dining room with all the residents. Often these faculty-student dinners will evolve into late-night discussions upstairs in one of the faculty masters' apartments. "The faculty and students are on the same plane in this setting and it's very relaxed. That's the real asset of living in this building - a quiet place to socially interact," says Jeff Browne, a sophomore education major. While students are receptive to this new-old concept of student culture, it's not easy to foster, say higher-education administrators. "One of the great frustrations is it is so nontraditional, so atypical that students don't have any notion of what it is to live with people you think with. Our students tend to think of the dorm as the social domain and the classroom as the thinking domain," observes Martha Burns, president of Integrated Options, a higher-education management consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.. But, says Starr, the incentive to move in this direction is strong. "You have to provide increasingly a quality residential experience when students are paying $20,000 a year. And this will become the differential between private schools and public schools, where hundreds of thousands [of students] go." Indeed, the concept is expensive because the right building has to be found. Embassy Residential College has been a costly venture. It has been the source of campus controversy, because many of the amenities - like group opera, theater, and symphony tickets, as well as the $12 million price of the building - are heavily subsidized by the USC housing department.