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Spring 2012 Columnist headshots Credit: Justin Cohen , Kyle Henson

Every year, Penn’s college house system rejects 200 to 300 students who request on-campus housing while another 300 or so undergrads live in Sansom Place — a dorm originally built for graduate students.

The college-house system was created in 1998 in response to student and faculty demands for a system similar to our Ivy-League peers. Harvard and Yale universities assign every undergraduate a residential college that then serves as that student’s academic and residential home for his or her entire education. The concept originates from the centuries-old systems at Oxford and Cambridge universities.

Countless studies and anecdotal evidence have demonstrated the potential for these systems to not only create a stronger university community but also benefit students academically.

While Penn claims on its housing website that college houses “stand at the center of the Penn undergraduate experience … to form shared communities,” the system fundamentally fails to achieve this mission due to a lack of political and financial commitment from the administration.

Such failure is not due to lack of trying. Instead, a basic limitation of the existing structures is retarding significant progress. Rob Nelson, the director for Education and Academic Planning in the Provost’s Office, has witnessed the inherent challenges in creating community in buildings that were not constructed to be college houses.

Nelson, who served as a fellow in Harrison College house from 2007 – 2011, believes that the faculty and staff must shape their efforts around the building they’re living in.

While there is a “natural sense of community in the quad,” the high-rise staff must conversely “create a community that works there,” he said. As a result, communities are often limited to a floor or a cluster of rooms.

College senior John Gee, a former chair of the Residential Advisory Board, has seen great potential for community when the college house system matches the building.

Gee, who has lived in Stouffer College House for four years, said the original mission of college houses is achieved “better where they started: in small, self-selected communities with high year-to-year retention rates.”

But beyond the incongruity between the current housing system and its original mission, the lack of on-campus housing is an embarrassment.

As the housing system stands today, Penn ranks an abysmal 17th out of the U.S. News and World Report top-20 American colleges in the percentage of undergraduates living on-campus. If Penn wishes to fight for the best high school students in the country — those often faced with a choice between Penn and schools such as Harvard and Yale — it must make a significant investment in the college house system.

This commitment inevitably requires an increase in the amount and quality of housing.

Two major plans from the 1990s called for the addition of thousands of new beds to accommodate a greater percentage of students living on-campus. But financial difficulties forced Penn to scale back their plans, which ultimately morphed into their present proposal to build a new college house on Hill field that would house 300 – 400 students.

This new college house will do little to change the state of housing at Penn. The housing system is so strained that a new college house will simply alleviate some of the burden without generating the needed change.

Executive Director of College Houses and Academic Services Martin Redman said, “the college house system is still in its infancy compared to many other institutions’ systems and that the administration soon needs to decide what the system will look like when it grows up.”

Leslie Delatuer, the director of Academic Programs for the college houses, echoed this point in saying that the college house system “has gotten stronger every year since its inception” but is quickly approaching a “holding pattern” of progress.

Currently, Penn is accepting mediocrity in its housing by refusing to make the political and financial commitments that would allow it to flourish. Long overdue renovation projects — particularly in Gregory, Stouffer and Hill — are essential to support the very college houses that have done the best job building community for its residents.

Penn’s administration now stands at a critical crossroad: make the commitment to the housing system or openly accept that not all students deserve this self-proclaimed “center of the Penn undergraduate experience.”

Kyle Henson is a College junior from Harrisburg, Pa. His email address is The Logical Skeptic appears every other Tuesday.

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