Prominent models for residential colleges are the colleges of the Oxford University and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom and the institutions based on them in the United States, including Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University, Rice University, and the University of California, Santa Cruz. Many other institutions use the system as well. Other universities in the U.S. have recently begun implementing residential colleges as a housing option, but, unlike the aforementioned institutions, at these universities not all of the undergraduate students are members of a residential college. Princeton University has a residential college system for underclassmen, but most upperclassmen leave their college to join an Eating Club. It has recently begun implementing a four-year residential system more like that of Yale, but for only a portion of its undergraduates. Cornell University is currently in the process of expanding its residential college system by razing much of its present upperclassmen housing and building five new residential colleges. At the University of Virginia, students may apply to live in one of three residential colleges, and acceptance rates vary from nearly 100 percent at Hereford College to less than five percent in Brown College at Monroe Hill.
In the United States, the academic and residential functions of the residential college system have separated somewhat, leaving the colleges primarily as housing systems. Although residential colleges still offer some classes, these offerings supplement the offerings of the major academic departments which have separate facilities. The primary difference in the U.S. between residential colleges and standard dormitories is often that students are a member of the same residential college for each year that they attend the university. In addition, the members of each residential college are usually expected to eat their meals together, as a unified body. Standard dormitories tend to have residents who move between dorm complexes each year, and who eat in dining halls largely mixed with residents of other dormitories. In the United Kingdom, a residential college combines both the living and academic aspects of the university in one location. Students often take their classes on the lower floors of the college building and live in the upper floors. Apart from the obvious models of the ancient Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, the University of Durham has residential colleges that operate rather differently from those of Oxford and Cambridge, while London University has an extensive federated college system that is, in effect, a confederation of major teaching and research institutions. The only other ancient collegiate university in current English-speaking Europe is Dublin University (founded 1592); it however is unique in that only has one constituent college, Trinity College.
Many universities in Canada have emulated the collegiate systems of some British universities. The University of Toronto has a federated college system including a number of "federated colleges" and "constituent colleges". Other Canadian universities with residential colleges include Trent University, the University of Western Ontario, the University of Waterloo, York University, the University of Manitoba, and the University of British Columbia. Three Canadian residential colleges are distinguished by being for graduate students rather than undergraduates — Green and St. John's Colleges at UBC, and Massey College at the University of Toronto.
Because of the many interpretations of the residential college concept, and its use at many universities and institutions, there are many experiences of how the concept plays out at various times and at various institutions. Some particularly illustrative experiences are summarised here.
With only three residential colleges for graduate students in Canada — Green and St. John's Colleges at the University of British Columbia, and Massey College at the University of Toronto — there is a sense that part of the work of these colleges is to explore a Canadian approach to the residential college model, and "to blend quality and prestige on the one hand, and enrichment of the campus on the other, while avoiding elitism or imitation".
In 1999 the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took stock of its housing system, and studied a variety of residence models, in " reinventing residence life @ MIT". Particularly relevant is their report, "A Creative Tension", about the Cambridge college system.
Murray State University in Kentucky, USA was in 1996 the first public university in the USA to adopt a successful campuswide residential college program. Though the physical structure of Murray State's residential colleges do not compare to those of the elite institutions, the basic residential college concept was still effectively implemented. All faculty, staff, and students, even those who live off-campus, are assigned to one of the eight residential colleges. Once assigned to a residential college, a person remains a member of that college throughout their time at the University, developing friendships, traditions and lasting bonds that are meant to endure years after leaving Murray State. One of the goals in establishing the program was to improve student life and retention and graduation rates.
In Italy, the residential college model was adopted in 2003 by all of Milan universities, according to a joint program developed in collaboration with several private and public institutions, such as Microsoft and the Lombardy Region, at the Collegio di Milano.