With the New College House set to open next year, we wanted to question the role of housing in fostering culture at Penn. Though often taken for granted, housing at Penn plays a substantive role in shaping students’ unique experiences at college. As freshmen, we’re sorted into vastly different living arrangements. Many are lucky enough to be placed in the Quad, which instills a sense of collegiate community. Others are placed in dorms like Mayer, which most students have never heard of. Some are assigned houses like Kings Court or Hill, which form their own bubbles.
But after freshman year, the inequality in housing is exacerbated. Because Penn does not mandate that students live on campus, finances often drive housing decisions, and the student body begins to stratify. Many move into fraternities or sororities, which is often not an option for those on financial aid. Others move off campus to apartments like Hamilton Court. Some are privileged enough to move to luxury apartments like Domus or the Radian. A significant amount of students remain on campus for a variety of reasons, yet find themselves paying for overpriced and underwhelming living spaces.
In this way, Penn almost completely diverges from the rest of the Ivy League. Yale, for instance, sorts students randomly into college houses, where they remain for four years. This sorting system is based on nothing and allows students to interact across socioeconomic, racial and other spectrums. Yale students also live in suites (which is only true for some Penn students), creating a sense of family within each dormitory. Harvard has a similar system. At Columbia, most students live in on-campus dormitories all four years, as with Brown and Dartmouth.
We need to question whether living with those who are like you is useful. Of course, it’s nice to live with a community of those with whom you self-identity. But we also must ask whether this contributes to a groupthink culture and homogenizes discourse.
A study by Gary Pike and George Kuh confirmed that “Only living on campus had a direct, positive effect on learning and intellectual development, whereas all four background variables were indirectly related to gains ... If an institution is serious about improving first-generation student success rates, then it should require them to live on campus at least for the first year of college.”
These disparities also affect social relations. Living in a fraternity means you can afford to host a party, and living in Domus means you can smoke on the balconies and not expect to get caught by your RA. The divergence in housing opportunities brings many of us back to high school, where some have the ability to run the social scene while others are left under strict financial and social restrictions beyond their control.
The ability to move off campus likely hurts on-campus living as well. First, the market to move off campus means that Penn has to do less to drive down costs. It can simply expect students to choose cheaper options off campus, often forcing students to choose the option that does not meet their expectations of a college dormitory environment for the sake of saving money. Second, the large off-campus population means that the lobbying force of students living on campus to demand decent living conditions is severely reduced.
And we shouldn’t assume that the off-campus market is out of Penn’s control. That’s simply not the case. The University has purchased millions in off-campus housing, making it one of the largest landlords in West Philadelphia. So is it the availability of off-campus housing that causes Penn to seemingly let its on-campus options grow stale (which also doesn’t explain the building of the aforementioned New College House)? Or is it that Penn chooses to limit its on-campus housing, which would seem to be in direct confrontation with its housing mission: “to bring together undergraduates, faculty, staff and graduate students to form vibrant residential communities within the larger context of our renowned urban campus, right in the heart of historic Philadelphia.”
As a community, we have to ask whether our structure and process of housing organization is fostering a helpful and diverse learning community. If students can self-select where to live, they can choose to leave the very intellectual communities Penn tries to foster. The challenge of living with people who vastly differ from you is taken away. Perhaps we’re losing part of a college experience we should spend more time demanding.
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