Mandatory on-campus freshmen housing a mistake

The resumption of classes this week marks not only the beginning of the last semester before many graduate, but also the beginning of apartment searches as more than 25,000 students make deals with others and search for a place to live when August rolls around.

In the spirit of self-determination, current students are free to choose whether to live in an apartment, condominium or house, and whether to go frugal or dole out copious amounts of money on an ornate dwelling.

But as this year’s freshmen know very well, such variety and freedom were not allotted to them last year, and barring a complete change, will most likely not be given to the incoming class of 2015. We all experienced it, and most of us loathed it. “It” is the freshman residency requirement, a perfect example of how individual mandates meant for the benefit of the community just make things much worse and spread the misery around.

Early in the Witt administration, an in-house dissertation written the previous decade that showed greater academic achievement for freshmen living on-campus led to the dormitory residency requirement. Only those who lived with their parents in Tuscaloosa County could be exempted.

Further studies came along that complemented each other’s data supporting on-campus living. The result is that other schools, including many small colleges, joined the party. After all, the data was published in conference proceedings and referred journals, so the mandate chorus must be a sweet melody, right?

Once put into practice, all we got was the sound of a dying cat. Since first-year students were required to live in a dorm room, the choices for first-year students evaporated. Such conditions made dorm rooms in high demand, and therefore made it possible for the University of Alabama to significantly raise prices. When I first entered Bryant Hall in 2006, the price of the premier residence halls were $2,750. Today, such rooms cost $3,750, a year-over-year inflation rate of 6.4 percent.

In comparison, Jonathan McCarthy and Richard W. Peach of the New York Federal Reserve showed that annual rent inflation was only 4.35 percent at the peak of the housing boom. Don’t forget that each resident pays that price for five months at a time, making the total $18,000 a year for two roommates. In contrast, my roommate and I pay $10,800 a year — this includes utilities — in Northport, saving us $3,600 a year each.

To make matters worse, most students do not have the sort of money to pay for on-campus living and other mandates such as meal plans. This results in an accrual of student loan debt, including private student loans. For government-issued Stafford Loans, this means an extra $2,675 in interest paid.

The residence requirement meant that housing had to build more halls to cover the increased demand. Students got Riverside, Lakeside, Bryant and Ridgecrest residence halls, and other buildings are set to be built. Will these new buildings charge the same amount as previous buildings such as Paty and Somerville? Doubtful.

The true tragedy, though, isn’t found in price inflation or increasing student debt. The error lies in what economists refer to as “opportunity cost” — the fact that when taking one path, you must also pay a “price” for the paths that you did not take.

Instead of building dormitories, we could have solved the parking problems plaguing this campus, built more academic facilities and allowed students to inject more money into the local economy by spending their savings from renting elsewhere.

What about improving academic performance as a result of the freshman living requirement? It turns out that there are massive inconsistencies in the conclusions of those publications.

The data from the dissertation I mentioned before was reexamined. It was found that there is a better correlation between gender and academic performance. Women have always had the academic advantage because they are more studious. In fact, the additional research showed that on-campus versus off-campus housing is statistically irrelevant.

Another joint study by faculty members from Colorado College and the University of Wisconsin, Le Claire found a range of GPA improvement (between 0.19 and 0.97 points), for students living on campus. Those statistics are so narrow they are virtually meaningless.

Forcing students to live on campus will continue to contribute to the increasing costs of college and prohibit these new adults from learning the fundamentals of contracts, independent living and other basic business principles. Maybe this will be the start of a civil debate on the merits of the mandate and whether it truly serves the interests of students and the surrounding community.

For a state that was so hell-bent on stopping the new healthcare requirements, two-faced thinking with regards to this issue is hypocritical at the least. It’s about time that students and parents start demanding an end to mandates such as this one. After all, universities are about learning and preparing the work force of the future, and not about being an adult babysitter for the “helicopter parents.”

Gregory Poole is a graduate student in metallurgical engineering. His column runs biweekly on Wednesdays.

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