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March 14, 2020

Harrowed by the Two-Year Housing Policy

The University’s newly instated two-year housing policy puts students who are experiencing harassment in the dorms in an uncomfortable position.

As winter quarter starts, our Facebook timelines are flooded with announcements of sublets, apartment pass-downs, and new places available to rent. It’s a time filled with enthusiasm. Students are selecting who they want to share a space with, away from the confines of room assignments dictated by the University.

Yet, this winter marks the first time that first-years are not allowed to partake in what has become this annual UChicago “tradition.” In November of 2018, the University announced that with the new Woodlawn dorm being built, starting with the Class of 2023, students in the College will be required to live on campus for two years instead of just one. In his email to the student body, Dean John Boyer noted that this change was made in an attempt to “give students deeper ties to [on-campus housing’s] supportive environment and the resources it provides.” He also reiterated that “living, studying and socializing in our housing communities has a deeply positive impact on student intellectual engagement and well-being.”

In several arenas, requiring students to live in dorms for two years does not “give students deeper ties” to this university, but rather puts unnecessary burdens on students for whom living in housing is not a viable option. Aside from cost, there are reasons to be skeptical that this institution may not be acting in the interest of truly building a stronger community among  students, especially given that sexual harassment can make dorms an incredibly uncomfortable space for certain students to live.

If UChicago wanted to foster stronger ties among students in the community, it shouldn’t pose a strong financial burden upon them and their families, as the two-year housing requirement does. Unless you are receiving substantial amounts of financial aid or are a Resident Assistant, it is far cheaper to live off-campus. On top of paying for housing, students who live on campus are forced to pay for a dining plan that costs almost $7,000 if they live in a single or double. At the full price of housing and a Phoenix or Unlimited dining plan, all of this adds up to around $17,000. If they are fortunate enough to land an apartment in North, South, or eventually, Woodlawn, they are still required to pay for the Apartment plan, which although cheaper, is still yet another cost that living on campus necessitates. By contrast, with apartment split costs ranging from around $600 to $1000 monthly on the higher end, and an average monthly grocery budget of around $250 per month, living off campus is about half the cost of living on campus.

Some speculate that the University is looking to make even more money off of undergraduates to finance the new megadorms. If this is the case, the University shouldn’t brand the two-year housing policy as an effort to “build community.” Requiring students and their families to stay on another year without any inherent guarantee of more aid, when faced with the annual increases to tuition, only puts more pressure on students without building a stronger community.

What else prevents students from being able to build community? Living in student housing not only often deprives students of a choice of who they live with, but more importantly, does not give them adequate outlets to leave in difficult circumstances. Like many students that hear disturbing roommate stories, from racist behavior to sexual harassment and assault, the housing system as it exists currently only further enables these behaviors. When a student wishes to leave their circumstances, in most cases, the first option they are offered is International House, which while may benefit some students, is a non-ideal alternative for others, as I-House is one of the  farthest dorms from campus, comprised significantly of singles. The survivors who deal with these unfortunate living situations, especially in cases of sexual assault, get the worse end of the stick, while the perpetrators often only get a stern lecturing from Resident Heads or Resident Deans.

How can a student feel like they are supported and bond with the school community in a housing system that not only requires them to remain in uncomfortable circumstances but also makes it difficult for them to feel like they have a home?

There is something to be said about increasing the amount of time students are required to live in a dorm, however. Some peers I’ve talked to have supported the new policy because it can enable stronger house relationships since students are now asked to live on campus for two years instead of one. Still, I’m inherently skeptical of the University’s motivations for implementing the two-year housing policy purely to establish a stronger sense of campus community. To me, it seems much more likely that the University’s new housing policy is just the administration’s way of making more money off of undergraduate students. 

What’s more, students don’t have to physically live in their house for two years to remain a part of the house community: Students who do want to engage with their house after moving off campus can remain a part of house culture by becoming a house associate.

Undergirding all of this is the increasing Harvard-ification of this institution. From Dean Boyer’s suggestions of shifting to a semester system to more mandatory time living on-campus to the creation of test-optional admissions to jack up the number of applicants to drive down the already low admissions rate, UChicago has been attempting to join the ranks of the Ivies. Of course, other colleges require students to live on campus for two years or more. Yet, housing costs in Hyde Park are substantially less than those in Cambridge, Princeton, or Palo Alto.

The two-year housing policy is problematic in that it forces students who have already had to deal with harassment in housing to remain in uncomfortable circumstances. Moreover, living on campus poses a significant financial burden to many students, as has been written about extensively in Viewpoints columns. It appears that this institution, instead of actually forging the community they preach about, is simply using undergraduates as cash cows to fund its new projects, often at the expense of their wellbeing.

Above making money and retaining its standing as a top tier university, UChicago should prioritize the interests and wellbeing of its students. In order to undo the harms the new housing policy imposes, the University should reinstate the former one year on-campus housing requirement. But if not that, then it should give students the opportunity to easily opt out of the two-year requirement if they are dealing with sexual assault or sexual/racial/gender-based harassment.

Noah Tesfaye is a first-year in the College. 

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