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Editorial: Class segregation in the housing lottery

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.

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