Over the last few months, Residential Services has issued major changes to the housing system to encourage students to remain on-campus. The goal of these temporary steps is to lead to more upperclassman housing and, hopefully, to increase retention for on-campus residence. Ironically, these changes may encourage more students to move off campus.
When housing applications for the 2014-2015 school year were made available, Residential Services announced the elimination of priority for upperclassmen. Paul Riel, the executive director of Residential Services, explained in a phone interview that this change was based on current trends in housing: because trends indicate sophomores are more interested in living on campus, Residential Services wants to focus on keeping them here (while additional upperclassman housing options are being constructed). While the new system might encourage more students to remain on-campus for longer (99% of all freshmen live in on-campus residential housing, compared to 55% of the total undergraduate population), it also seems to discourage four years on campus. By taking away the priority once given to juniors and seniors, upperclassmen lose the incentive to remain on campus. Why risk getting a double in Bobb instead of a Kemper suite or other more desirable housing options? If Residential Services wants students to remain on campus for four years, then maintaining incentives for upperclassmen is key. There are plenty of reasons for upperclassmen to move out of halls beyond fear of a lousy lottery number. This attempt to retain students, while a temporary measure, seems more likely to push them off-campus in the long term.
The Daily Northwestern announced in late July that the North Mid-Quads and South Mid-Quads residence halls would be closed for the fall and winter quarters so empty spots in other residence halls could be filled. If unfilled rooms are a consistent problem, Residential Services needs to consider other methods to keep students on campus. In an “It’s Not Too Late To Live On Campus!” email sent to students this summer, Residential Services advertised proximity to classes, prepared food in the dining halls and opportunities to get involved with student groups, among other incentives. However, these benefits struggle to match the freedoms offered by being off-campus: no longer needing to carry keys from the bedroom to the lounge, access to nicer, more spacious kitchens, and no longer having an RA around. To many upperclassmen, apartment living is more appealing than university housing. It seems, in this regard, Residential Services is out of touch with the student body.
The simple cost of living on campus is a significant impact as well. Upperclassmen housing options like Kemper become increasingly expensive, and closing the Mid-Quads removes some of the cheaper options available. Another reason students move off-campus could be due to a cultural idea that it's simply the thing to do here as one gets older. Some students want to experience a more adult life by managing their own household – a responsibility that on-campus housing simply cannot replicate.
With the hiring of Deb Schmidt-Rogers as new director of Residential Life, it remains to be seen what the future holds for Northwestern residential housing. As it is, the recent efforts of Residential Services are temporary measures. To see a long-term reversal of current trends, Residential Services should more directly address the reasons why students move off campus. Changes that make on-campus housing more appealing to upperclassmen, such as creating more apartment-style housing, may be more successful at keeping students on campus.