Columns

Rock ’18: Dorm price range should match quality range

By
Staff Columnist
Friday, March 25, 2016

This year, Brown’s housing fees have seen a surprising change — and it’s not the price increase, silly; I said “surprising.” Next year, many rooms in Vartan Gregorian Quad will no longer require the infamous suite fee. While lovely for the future residents of New Dorm, this shift points out a simple but upsetting fact: Despite offering vastly different amenities, all dorms are divided into only two price categories. As the changes in New Dorm’s fees demonstrate, the suite-or-standard binary does not account for the range of existing facilities.

Setting aside the issue of deciding precisely what constitutes a suite, each price category encompasses vastly different living arrangements. Some dorms are farther away from campus resources than others. Some have been renovated recently while others have been ignored for years. Some are places people look forward to living and others are legendary sources of dread. In short, some dorms have less value than others. When it comes to on-campus housing, some of us are not getting what we’re paying for (if, indeed, any one of us is). In an ideal world, the University would be able to ensure that all dorms are equally maintained and create an egalitarian residential utopia. This is unrealistic. Fortunately, there is a much more practical alternative: creating a more nuanced pricing system that better accounts for the disparities in on-campus housing.

Despite my earlier grousing about the housing price hike for next year, I understand that the University needs to raise a certain amount of money from housing fees each year. I want the University to continue existing and understand that fees are a critical part of the balancing act this requires. My complaint is that this financial burden is currently distributed indiscriminately.

Imagine if, instead of being University-owned, all residence halls were private properties. It would be a logistical nightmare, of course, but there is no way that a room in Perkins would cost as much as one in 315 Thayer. The difference would be on the order of several hundred dollars per semester. While I don’t think that the housing situation would be better in a hypothetical capitalist wet dream, this thought experiment points to a critical flaw with the current billing scheme. In a fairer system, above-average rooms would command higher prices while less desirable ones would be cheaper. The occupants of Brown’s shadier residence halls are currently getting a far worse deal than their better-situated classmates.

While not devoid of problems, a more complicated system based on interest in various rooms would create prices that better reflect the quality of life provided by University housing. Even having four tiers (A, B, C, NC?) ranging from tricked-out apartments at one end to isolated, neglected husks like Perkins at the bottom, would reduce the unfairness of the current system. Rooms could be sorted based on historical housing lottery data: Rooms that consistently fill up toward the end of the lottery should be cheaper than those that get snapped up immediately. This would give an objective method for comparing different dorms without needing to account for the individual factors that make some dorms better than others.

The current pricing system does have one major strength: simplicity. If you’re living on campus, you only have to make one price-dependent choice: whether you and your three friends think having a private kitchen and a living room for a year is worth a 2005 Ford Focus with an iPhone 6s and $132 in the glove compartment (according to the most recent available data, suite fee for 4: $4,832. Ford focus: $4,500. iPhone 6s: $200 with an AT&T contract). Giving students only two price options streamlines the selection process, makes ResLife’s job easier and helps us not to think about the amount of money we’re spending on housing.

This simplicity comes at a price. The two-category system is so straightforward because it disregards important qualities that should be factored into dorm prices. It would also be simple to have a flat tax system, but I believe that this simplicity would result in an unfair distribution of financial burden. The housing price system is similar: We are sacrificing effectiveness for ease. But having all rooms priced individually would be too much of a shift in the other direction. Such a system would be highly impractical. I think that there is a sweet spot between having two price categories and having complete price mobility where we achieve the best balance between fairness and simplicity. I think the optimal number of categories would be around four.

Another problem with adding price categories is the potential to create socioeconomic stratification in campus housing. Many people would consciously choose to live in less desirable dorms if it would save them a significant amount of money, while others could use their financial advantages to secure better housing. Such dynamics are already a part of housing assignments. The current suite fee is prohibitively expensive for some people but not for others, allowing wealthier people to pay more for better housing. Extending the current housing price system to include more categories would not fundamentally change this. If anything, it would blur the boundary by adding intermediate options. Most importantly, it would give people better control over their personal finances.

The two-category housing fee system imposes an unfairly high rate on the residents of less desirable dorms and completely ignores many factors that influence the value of a particular room. A more nuanced approach would allow people more control over their housing fees and improve the overall fairness of the housing lottery by adding a silver lining to second-rate dorms. The University should add more price categories to account for the variation in on-campus housing quality and allow students a greater degree of financial choice.

Avery Rock ’18 can be reached at avery_rock@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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7 Comments

  1. A New Leaf says:

    Here’s the issue with price categories: it stratifies students by how much they can pay. Just like 315 Thayer has become a synonym for “my parents have money,” certain dorms would become the same way. While the current system may not seem fair to you, at least it’s egalitarian.

    • DisgruntledSenior says:

      I agree, but the current system is really unfair to those with bad luck. I know people who lived in Perkins two years in a row, and others who’ve had singles since freshman year in very nice dorms like Minden.

      There should be some source of stratification. If not income, I think that academic and extracurricular achievement can be used to give some students priority. I know that at UVA, some of the really nice dorms are reserved for the best/most accomplished students. No one really complains about the system, and I think it’s a pretty fair way to take socioeconomic factors out of the equation.

    • TheRationale says:

      The current system is the precise opposite of egalitarian. The students in bad dorms subsidize the students in good dorms. It is extremely regressive to force those least well off to pay additional fees to indulge others’ aloof notions of “egalitarianism.”

  2. TheRationale says:

    The current system is highly regressive – there is nothing egalitarian about it. Student living in the best dorms are subsidized by the students paying the same fare in the worst dorms. Forcing the worse off to subsidized the luxuries of the better off is as unfair as it could possibly get. The sane, fair, and respectable approach is to allow prices to work.

    The “capitalist wet dream” actually exists at many other schools. In Florida, student apartments like 257 Thayer rent for a fraction of what Brown dorms currently cost today. These areas tend to have a lot more space and fewer building restrictions, so prices are low and quality is competitive. It’s not nuanced, it’s just a market working at its best.

    The East Side is unfortunately very difficult to develop, as everything is crammed together, so it’s hardly the same situation. It’s a wonder that 257 managed to acquire all the land it did.

  3. Teddy Edwards says:

    Democrats have insured that there will never be parity between quality of service or product at universities and price.

    Government guaranteed loans mean universities NEED NOT COMPETE for your dollars. Your dollars are guaranteed to them. Democrats did that. Well, if you vote Democrat, you did. And if your student debt is huge, that’s the Democrats as well.

    This is another example of how government interference makes things worse for you. But you were led to believe it wouldn’t because they said “don’t worry, vote for us, your loan is guaranteed.”

    LOL.

  4. This is a legitimate frustration. Another solution would be to demand that Brown provide accommodation of comparable quality to all students. In some cases, that will mean demolishing substandard dormitories and building new facilities to replace them. Brown is a private university and must serve its customers.

    The quality of lifestyle and campus experience for those living in Perkins or the Grad Center has little in common with those living in Hope or Hegeman.

    I’m not sure whose responsibility it is to monitor that Brown maintain a product comparable to her peers. Dartmouth, for example, opened two residence complexes in the past decade that together accommodate 500 students. Those were not small-scale renovations to existing buildings, but capital projects that reflect the priorities and vision of the school.

    Residence hall disparities are important. Other substandard or entirely missing facilities and amenities should cause students some concern as well.

    Perhaps a compelling case can be made for a Room & Board discount at Brown in comparison to what Yale or Harvard or Washington University or Northwestern charge. When I think of the OMAC, I shake my head. …

  5. “Ford focus: $4,500” I know this is from March but this is bugging me truly and deeply

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