Each year, about 20 percent of undergraduates — roughly 1,000 seniors and 250 juniors — live off campus as part of a system that enables the Office of Residential Life to relieve pressure on the limited supply of on-campus housing, like a safety valve that can be opened as needed.
But the variables that feed into the model that determines how much the valve needs to be opened can be hard to predict from current data, and historical trends at times prove unreliable.
"The truth of the matter is that it's an imperfect science that is carried out with as much data as we have," Dean of the College Katherine Bergeron said.
Further complicating the equation, misaligned incentives hamper ResLife's ability to accurately hit the target number of students living off-campus. The system encourages students to "have their feet in multiple doors," as Richard Bova, senior associate dean of residential and dining services, put it.
Calculating the target
At its most basic level, the model predicts the difference between the projected number of students enrolled at Brown and the projected number of students separating from the University. This difference represents the number of students needing a place to live — on or off campus. The target number of students living off campus is this number minus the number of beds on campus.
The number of total separations is made up of the number of students graduating, going off campus for study abroad or taking leaves of any type — such as medical or personal leaves.
The first category of separation — the number of students graduating — is never an exact figure, and can fluctuate from projections by about 10 students, Bova said.
The number of students studying abroad may fluctuate by as many as 20 students and can be more volatile due to world events such as the tsunami in Japan and conflicts in the Middle East. Finalized numbers from the Office of International Programs do not arrive until late spring, well after the first round of off-campus approvals are sent out in the fall.
As for the number of students taking leaves, Bova said the best predictor he has is an average of the past three years' data. Each year, the model factors in a projected fall "melt" of about 30 students to account for students who drop out for various reasons during that semester.
Bova noted that though trends show overcrowding on the first day of each school year, the melt mitigates overcrowding as the semester progresses and students living in temporary housing are moved into normal rooms. And in years that begin with vacancies, the melt intensifies the problem of being under capacity for ResLife.
The total number of new and continuing students is made up of the number of students continuing at Brown, returning from abroad or returning from leaves, plus incoming first-years and fall transfers.
Of this piece of the equation, Bova said he faces similar uncertainty. The number of incoming first-years, Bova said, is generally close to its target. Other variables, like students returning from abroad, are based on what students report, and are more likely to change. Administrators calculate the projections based on students' indications of their intentions combined with historical trends, refreshing estimates periodically.
But even trends change, Bergeron noted.
"Another problem has to do with the fact that one side of the house deals in beds, and the other side deals in FTE's," Bergeron said. An FTE, or full-time equivalent, is an undergraduate student who is taking at least three courses at Brown, Bergeron said. Though many numbers at the University, such as the enrollment target, are specified in FTE's, this number does not always translate perfectly into the number of students who will be living at Brown, though it is usually quite close.
A large chunk of off-campus approvals are sent out in the fall, followed by another round shortly before the housing lottery. Later into the school year and over the summer, Bova said he sends out new approvals weekly. The model is updated at several points as its variables — such as deadlines for declaring study abroad choices — firm up.
Toward the end of the process, Bova also needs to track down about 30 "ghosts," or students who have not done anything to arrange housing for the next year. Later on, ResLife may also need to accommodate a number of students who are off campus and do not like their living situations. In such cases, Bova said he does his best to find rooms for them on campus.
A leaky safety valve
Even if the model perfectly predicted the number of students who ought to live off campus, achieving that target number of off-campus students is also messy work.
"There are many students who sign up, get off-campus approval, and they have no intention of even going off campus," Bova said.
Currently there is no penalty for applying for off-campus permission and then declining to live off campus prior to Super Deadline Day, which was March 8 this year.
Students declining permission after the deadline are ineligible to participate in the lottery and are forced onto the summer waitlist.
"That creates such a ripple and a flurry of phone calls from parents," Bova said, which at times involves a large amount of "screaming, yelling, insulting behavior."
But assignments on the summer waitlist are made by semester level, so upperclassmen who decline permission usually end up living in normal housing and not in converted lounges. In fact, 90 percent of students in temporary housing this fall were sophomores, according to Bova.
"Why do you apply for off-campus permission if you don't really want it? Many students want their feet in both places of the yard. They want to straddle the fence," Bova said.
"Is there an incentive for Brown students to want to have their feet in multiple doors? Yes," he continued, saying that the University's housing system has been based on seniority for decades, which is inherently vulnerable to misaligned incentives.
"But I really cannot foresee a time when I just shut students out completely and say, ‘You made a bad choice,'" he said. "We don't leave anybody on the doorstep."
Last semester, Richard Hilton, ResLife's assistant director for operations, sent emails to all sophomores and juniors, directed at any students "thinking of applying for off-campus permission." For many sophomores, this was their first introduction to the off-campus system.
"There are a limited number of students approved to live off campus each year. Therefore, if you have any interest in living off campus for the 2011-12 academic year, please complete an application," Hilton wrote.
Still, Bova said ResLife has put stern warnings on its website to students who would apply for off-campus permission on a whim.
"I think we're very clear," Bova said. "Enter in the process if this is what you want. Why enter the process if you don't have the intention?"
Bova said 78 juniors declined their permission late last spring.
Though ResLife maintains waitlists for students initially denied off-campus permission, some students say they have been notified too late to find housing in Providence.
Bova dismissed the prospect of approving more students for off-campus permission than the current model's off-campus target, saying he does not believe it is ResLife's responsibility to plan around students who irresponsibly back out of off-campus commitments.
"There is no housing program in the country that will overshoot the model because they think people are going to decline," he said.