Wednesday, August 6, 2008

On Student Housing

Note: I just received this link from a reader at Harvard:
Might be interesting reading since this topic has apparently become a hot topic nationally

The continuing debate about adequate and/or affordable housing, landlord responsibility and how to deal with impacts on neighborhoods, like parking shortage, litter & noise nuisances, suggests all of these are, often, pretty well interrelated.
One factor, that of student housing, crops up frequently as a problem that needs addressing.

So, with that in mind, here is an example of how another University -Vanderbilt- is facing that issue:

From the Vanderbilt website;

All undergraduate students not living with relatives in Davidson County are required to live on campus all four years to the extent that on-campus student housing facilities can accommodate them. In practice, though, approximately 83% of undergraduates—freshmen, sophomores, nearly all juniors and most seniors—currently live on campus. The remaining undergraduates join graduate and professional students in living off-campus. Student life at Vanderbilt is consequently heavily intertwined with campus life.

However, the on-campus residential system is currently undergoing a radical change. The new system, announced by the administration in 2002, would change the current structure of quadrangle-based residence halls to a new system of residential colleges, to be called "College Halls". Similar to the residential structures at Caltech, Harvard, Rice, and Yale, the new College Halls system would create residence halls where students and faculty would live together in a self-contained environment, complete with study rooms, cafeterias, laundry facilities, and stores. This project is now underway and is scheduled to be completed within the next 20 years.

The first step in the College Halls system will be The Commons, a collection of ten residential halls on the Peabody campus that will house all first-year students beginning in the fall of 2008. While the university currently houses freshmen in three separate and distinct residential areas, it is hoped that The Commons will give first-year students a unified (and unifying) living-learning experience. Five existing dormitories on Peabody have been renovated, and the university is in the process of building five new ones. Two of the new residence halls have received LEED silver certification, making Vanderbilt the only university in the state to be recognized by the U.S. Green Building Council. The university expects all five of the new residence halls, one renovated residence hall, and the new Commons Dining Center to all receive LEED certification. The total cost of The Commons construction project is expected to be over $150 million.

With the addition of these new residence halls, the university will be able to house all undergraduate students on campus. Since university policy requires undergraduates to live on campus when possible, Vanderbilt's Office of Housing and Residential Education will no longer grant students permission to live off campus, beginning with the class graduating in 2009. Many current students who came to Vanderbilt with the understanding that seniors were generally allowed to live off campus are now disappointed that they must live on campus all four years. However, university administrators believe the undergraduate community receives the greatest benefit from living in on-campus residence halls, citing increased interaction with faculty, better academic performance, and stronger interpersonal relationships.


Is that what we want?

While I haven't researched this much, Vanderbilt's plan probably resembles that of very few schools of higher education, that are either heavily endowed, elite universities, or much smaller schools that are set up for that style of learning. Therefore this idea probably represents one extreme on a spectrum of possibilities.

My own alma mater, the University of Virgina, only required 'on-grounds' housing for first-year students, although other dormitories were also provided for more senior students who preferred living in them.
That seems to be similar to the policy of WWU, though I'm not sure of that.

The point is, a requirement for any University to house all of its students is a major policy decision. And, it is a very costly proposition that is also contentious and likely to take years and substantial acreage to implement. So, that idea doesn't seem to be a viable answer in itself, but may be -directionally- a partial answer.

Then there is the question of who are the 'students' in question? Are they full-time, or part-time learners with jobs & families? Are they commuters? Are they exchange students or graduate students? Are they student instructors? Are they professors or university staff? Do they attend WCC or BTC instead of WWU? There is a need to quantify which groups of people we are talking about, as well as what future growth will likely contribute.

The clear alternate to University supplied student housing is the availability of rental properties, in and around the City. That is where most 'students' seem to live, and where most of the complaints come from. More importantly, whose responsibility is it to insure these complaints are addressed and don't get out of hand? Think that's a shared responsibility between WWU, the City, landlords and the neighbors affected? I do. And that is where this debate is rightfully centered. It is unrealistic in the extreme to expect desert island tranquillity in a vibrant urban area, which is what this City most essentially is. Citizens must learn to deal with that reality the best they can, without adding to it themselves. There are some very legitimate concerns which must be addressed in a timely and effective manner. But there are also some folks with 'victim' mentalities who choose to hyperventilate in their attempts to completely externalize this problem, too! Of perhaps even greater concern is the assumption that most complaints involve students at all!

There are some things the City can do better, like not allowing more 'four-plexes', like those in Happy Valley, among other things.
There are things that WWU can do better too, like maybe having students agree to certain standards of behavior, as is done at some other Universities.
There are things that landlords and property managers can do better, like better lease agreements and providing convenient avenues to redress reports of problems.
And, there are things that neighbors and individuals can do better, like getting to know those who habitually underperform in being good neighbors.

Only after all of these entities have given this issue their best 'college try' and conclude that more is clearly needed, should we consider more draconian steps, like licensing landlords to pay for enforcement of nuisance laws.
I think the Herald Editorial personnel have it right on this issue.
As Pogo said 'we have found the enemy, and it is us'.