Upper-class on-Grounds housing deserves more attention from Housing & Residence Life
The first “pillar” of the University’s strategic plan is to “extend and strengthen the University’s distinctive residential culture.” To accomplish this goal, the University will have to devote more time and money to on-Grounds upper-class housing.
It’s not hard to see why first-year housing attracts the lion’s share of attention from the school. For one, first-year housing plays a big part in courting students. Prospective students take dorm tours and ask themselves if they can imagine living in the buildings they see. We doubt that many prospective students reject or accept a school’s admissions offer on the basis of housing alone. But a glimpse of a dormitory can influence a student’s decision in a less calculated way. An unappealing dorm can give the impression of an unappealing school. A luxurious dorm — such as the newest of the University’s first-year residence halls on Alderman — suggests a luxurious school.
Second, first-year students require more from their living situations than upperclassmen. They need friends, first of all. Many first-year students, especially out-of-state ones, come in not knowing many of their peers. A robust residential community is key for students who are adapting to the rhythms of college life because living in the same dorm allows people to meet and learn from each other in an unstructured manner.
First-year students are also more vulnerable, in many ways, than upperclassmen. Adjusting to college can be very difficult. Fancy first-year dorms can ease this transition. Thus, one motivation behind luxurious first-year dorms is to promote happiness. While a living space that offers amenities such as air conditioning, private study rooms, lounges, open green spaces and so on — as the University’s newest dorms do — can’t guarantee happiness, it can dazzle students who might otherwise dwell on anxieties about fitting in and growing up.
Given that first-year students and upperclassmen do not need or desire the same kind, or even quality, of residential experience, it is not surprising that first-year housing attracts more construction projects, funding and attention than upper-class housing. But the disparity between how much energy the University invests in first-year housing and how much energy it invests in upper-class housing is undesirably large.
Most of the upper-class on-Grounds communities at the University have either a barrier to entry (e.g. knowledge of a foreign language) or some special focus. Excluding language houses, residential colleges such as Brown College and the IRC, and transfer communities such as Johnson, Malone and Weedon, the University has just four upper-class residence areas: Bice, Copeley, Faulkner and Lambeth. Two of these areas — Copeley and Faulkner — are sufficiently far from Central Grounds that their residents might protest the University’s upper-class housing “frequently asked questions” page, which lists location as the first reason why students should live on Grounds. The on-Grounds communities that are united by a common interest — such as the language houses — are better positioned both geographically and socially to succeed. But for people who don’t speak a language and aren’t interested in Brown, Hereford or the IRC, options are few and — literally — far between.
So students disperse after first year. About half remain on Grounds second year, and that proportion continues to decline when students move into their third and fourth years.
The University’s student population is increasing. It is unclear whether this increase in population will require the construction of an additional upper-class dorm. As University officials evaluate whether the school needs another upper-class dorm, they should consider the effects of increased numbers of students seeking off-Grounds housing in Charlottesville. A flood of University students renting off-Grounds apartments and houses risks driving housing prices up and squeezing Charlottesville residents’ wallets — or possibly squeezing them out of housing near the University altogether.
A new on-Grounds upper-class residence area would be a worthwhile development. A recently re-energized push for an on-Grounds Sustainability House points to a way to accomplish two goals at once if the University makes it an upper-class community. Such an initiative, however, will only partially fix the upper-class housing woes, because it is unlikely that an environmentally conscious community would be able to house a large number of students. A new residence area might not be the answer — though an appealing solution, it would be expensive: and where would we put it? — but it is something that Housing & Residence Life should seriously consider planning for.
Directing attention toward upper-class housing will also help us keep pace with our peers. Schools with more vibrant upper-class residential atmospheres include some of our most direct competitors. Duke, for example, requires students to live on campus for their first three years.
If we wish to strengthen the University’s residential culture, we must devote attention not only to first years but also to upperclassmen.