Editorial: Class segregation in the housing lottery

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In response to a recent Herald opinions column by Cara Dorris ’15 (“Why we won’t talk about class,” Feb. 12), let’s talk about class. Dorris acutely points out those uncomfortable first-year moments when we begin to draw informal class lines. The University has little to no control over some of these daily battles, where some can go out for lavish dinners and buy drinks at bars and others simply cannot. Some class divide is perhaps inevitable, but surely the University can change some of its policies to maintain a diverse and relatively unsegregated community according to class.

In Brown’s housing lottery system, we are required to live on campus our sophomore and, for the vast majority of students, junior years. We assume this is in part to maintain a strong sense of campus community. Yet even before we are granted the opportunity to move off campus, dividing ourselves into those who can afford newly furnished apartments and homes with renovated kitchens and personal bathrooms and those who cannot, we are given the option in the housing lottery to buy a nicer dorm with a “suite fee.”

There is no such thing as a housing lottery without conflict, and there never will be. But consider the position of a student who wants to live with a group of friends who can afford a suite fee while he cannot. The situation can play out in many ways, but ultimately this student will be denied access to better housing because he cannot afford it. On top of that, University policy has created a greater class divide among friends. Some might justify the suite fee on the grounds that it is the most efficient allocation of resources, since those who most desire better housing will be granted the opportunity to obtain it by paying what probably resembles a free-market price (even though it is in reality determined by the University). But given that our financial opportunities are still almost exclusively tied to those of our parents, the justification that the allocation is based on desire — those willing to work for the cost of a suite fee will be given better housing — is shaky at best.

Further consider the implications beyond the individual level. Wealthier students are granted the opportunity to live in separate dormitories with spacious common rooms and quality kitchens, while other students are de facto denied this opportunity. These students are left to lower-quality dormitories with comparatively low-quality communal kitchens to be shared with many more students. They are then faced with a conflict of interest in which collectively requesting better facilities would mean sacrificing financial aid as a spending priority. Students in the coveted “suite fee” dorms also have unmatched social capital — think Friday night pre-games in Young Orchard or wine-and-cheese parties in Barbour versus crowded end-of-the-night mingling in Grad Center.

This pattern of course is not without its exceptions. The housing lottery does not perfectly segregate the student body according to class. Some students from working-class backgrounds may have scholarships or hefty financial aid packages that enable them to afford the suite fee, and some wealthier students pull a bad lottery number and wind up in a Minden quad. But the suite fee undeniably gives unequal access to better housing and is indeed a form of class segregation. We categorically reject this form of housing segregation, even if it has not yet been recognized as such.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to editorials@browndailyherald.com.

  • TheRationale

    Whoa, people with more money can buy more stuff? I had no idea.

  • Alumnus ’09

    Obviously the university won’t absorb the suite fee, so just to make sure we’re all on the same page, you’re advocating the suite fees be pooled and evenly distributed in the housing costs of all students?

    • Alumnus ’09

      And I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing, just find it interesting that there’s no acknowledgement that the money has to come from somewhere.

    • Anon

      I think the main problem isn’t the existence of the suite fee, it’s the fact that it’s an extra optional expense, so it’s not covered under financial aid. Obviously the university won’t absorb the costs for all students, but the sum is pretty big for the students on financial aid. Admittedly without knowing the numbers, I imagine the increased cost in financial aid from factoring this in would hardly affect Brown’s budget. It’s a pretty tough conversation to have to sit down with your friends and ask them all to sacrifice where they live for a year because you can’t afford it. A lot of people don’t want to ask that of their friends, so they just leave the group and enter alone or search for other people in the same situation. Every year, groups split up based on who can afford it and who can’t.

  • Alum 2013

    If you look in the results of lotteries of years past you may find some statistically impossible results like groups of 10 with a top 10 number for their year. Coincidence? I think not. Class segregation isn’t just caused by means. Favors and special treatment also contribute. We need to seriously re-evaluate Brown’s unparalleled legacy acceptance rate if we’re really going to have this discussion.

    • ‘`*-.,_,-*’`*~-.,.~*’*~ (2014)

      terrifying if true but this seems a little conspiracy theory-ish. first of all, “statistically impossible” isn’t what you meant there. secondly, are you sure the groups you’re thinking of were homogeneous? often a group gets a boost when people of different semester levels (sometimes .5ers) are mixed in.

      • Alum

        When one is a movie star, another the child of two movie stars, and the rest the entourage that closely resembles characters from Ms. Dorris’ recent piece, you put two and two together…

        I’m sure you’re also unaware of the special summer mixer for select incoming freshmen at Brown. Or the specially assigned first year advisor these select students share.

        Brown cowtows to its wealthy, connected clients. The culture of legacy matriculation compounds the favoritism (and subsequent classism) further.