The administration’s decision to bar sophomores from moving off campus is part of a series of restrictive solutions Penn has announced this semester to protect students from themselves. If the University’s goal is to increase the number of sophomores living in college housing, we believe it should focus on improving the quality of on-campus housing, making dormitories a more attractive option, while continuing to allow sophomores to determine their own living situations.
Administrators’ decisions this semester to close Huntsman Hall at 2 a.m., cap students’ academic programs at 7.5 course units, and now, make it mandatory for sophomores to live in college dormitories show that Penn is not afraid of taking decisive action when it comes to tackling the problems it perceives as pervasive.
But this approach of addressing campus issues by restricting the ability of students to choose for themselves is patronizing, especially when students were largely left out of the decision-making process.
Part of Penn’s justification for the decision is to improve the “sophomore experience.” However, instead of mandating that sophomore students live on campus, Penn should focus on making its on-campus experience a more attractive option to sophomores.
If Penn believes on-campus living during sophomore year is the best option for students, make this a reality. Ensure that new constructions like New College House West are designed so sophomores feel compelled to stay on campus. Renovate the decades-old high rises, address the pest infestations that plague various college houses, and finally install air conditioning in every dormitory so students paying thousands in rent are not sleeping in study lounges.
The evidence that this will work already exists. Students living in New College House are choosing to stay in record numbers. Last year, over 500 NCH residents applied to live there again their sophomore year. Over 200 of those applicants were rejected due to space constraints. For many freshmen, NCH has supplanted the Quad as the ideal dormitory — a trend that would have sounded impossible just a few years ago.
Our peer institutions in the Ivy League provide further evidence. Schools like Harvard University boast robust on-campus dormitory systems without mandating that students stay on campus beyond their freshman year. More than 97 percent of Harvard undergraduates choose to live on campus, but more important is that they do so voluntarily.
Mandating that students live in on-campus residences also disadvantages those for whom the policy just does not work.
For many first-generation, low-income students, for example, on-campus housing can often be too expensive. Moving off campus allows these students to negotiate leases or housing situations that may better serve their financial needs.
Penn needs to take an honest look at the state of on-campus housing and address the reasons so many sophomores currently choose other options.
Certain advantages like the lack of a resident advisor or quiet hours, and greater freedom to host guests may never be replicated in an on-campus dormitory. But working to provide superior amenities and more affordable rents are attainable goals. Doing so would accomplish the University’s objective of increasing the number of sophomores who live on campus, without sacrificing these students’ autonomy.
Building a more vibrant community for Penn students is a commendable goal, and urging more students to stay together in on-campus residences may well be a step to achieve that. But as with the decision around Huntsman Hall’s closing hours and students’ academic credits, this needs to be a discussion in order to work. To truly create a better experience for students, Penn needs to foster an environment where students feel empowered to make decisions that are right for them — not choose on their behalf.