This story was updated on 8/29/12 to include a comment from Barnard's administration on the retroactive change to some students' housing contracts.
A housing shortage at Barnard has prompted accusations that administrators misled many students or were simply unprepared for the coming year, after some students were crowded into converted doubles and others now forced to live off campus are without some financial aid.
Over 80 students found themselves on a housing waitlist in late July, after a higher number of students admitted, a higher yield, and more students choosing to live on campus pushed the capacity of the college’s dormitories to its limits for the second straight year. While the administration was able to offer on-campus housing for most of them—after several students followed the college’s advice to seek off-campus housing—nine students were still without assignments as of Thursday, according to Dean Avis Hinkson, BC ’84.
Officials have assured students that the shortage was unforeseen and not fully realized until the last few weeks, but the college’s renegotiation of its housing contracts with on-leave students in February and acceptance of waitlisted first-years suggest the problem was in the works for some time.
In the past, Barnard students who took a medical or academic leave of absence were guaranteed housing upon their return to campus and, for some, this made a difficult choice easier.
One student, who was on a leave of absence last spring and signed a contract in the fall guaranteeing her on-campus housing, said, “It lifted a burden off my shoulders when I left to know housing was guaranteed.” The student, who asked not to be named, said she recalled reassuring herself that “I don’t have to worry about that factoring into leaving because I’ll get housing when I come back as if nothing had happened.”
But as first reported by Bwog, in February, after this student and others signed the contract, the administration retroactively revoked housing guarantees for all returning students and failed to notify those affected.
In a panic, the student contacted Director of Barnard Residential Life and Housing Ann Aversa last week and asked her if the guarantee was being revoked. According to the student, Aversa replied, “That's not for me to decide.”
The student also called Barnard Residential Life and Housing requesting to see the contract she signed last November that guaranteed her on-campus housing upon her return. “They were so dodgy, I almost laughed,” the student said. She said she was told, “We do have your document, we just don’t know where it is. We don’t know when we can pull it up for you.”
A spokesperson for the central administration indicated that administrators would not be available for comment on the change in contract until Monday. [UPDATE: Barnard spokesperson Sun Min told Spectator that when the housing guarantee for returning students was revoked in February, the college put a statement on its website, but did not notify returning students. Only in May did returning students receive emails informing them that they would not be guaranteed housing for the fall semester.]
On Sunday, representatives from the Housing Advisory Board of Barnard’s Student Government Association expressed their sympathy to those affected by the housing shortage. “We also endeavor to ensure that any contractual changes are clearly articulated going forward,” SGA representatives wrote in the statement.
Full rooms, empty promises
Last week, about 70 transfer students who were awaiting housing received rooms. Unlike those who take leaves of absence, transfer students have never been guaranteed housing, but the school has been able to accommodate them in previous years, Hinkson said. Over the past four months, however, transfer students said they were given contradictory advice that led many to settle for less-than ideal accommodations.
In May, incoming transfer student Lauren Payne, BC ’15, said that she was told by administrators that they were “optimistic” about finding a housing assignment for her “and that I shouldn’t sweat it.” But, only two months later, Payne and other transfer students were notified that they would not be given a housing assignment, leaving only a few weeks for these students to find housing before the start of school.
“Being a transfer student is already hard enough,” Lilli Balik, BC ’15 and an incoming transfer student, said. “You want to be living among your peers to get to know people, instead of being isolated.” Balik said that she contacted Barnard soon after enrolling last spring and was told by a housing official not to worry because in previous years the college had always been able to find housing for transfer students.
But administrators kept her waiting for several months. Balik said that she was notified on Aug. 8 that a room had opened up in Barnard housing and that she had two days to accept. By that time, she was about to sign a lease on an apartment with two other transfer students and, instead of feeling relieved, she felt manipulated.
“I just thought it was kind of ridiculous that you can tell people that there is no housing, that they need to find something else, and then once people find housing—‘Oh wait, sorry, we have housing for you,’” she said. “It’s not fair.”
In the past, most transfer students have been housed in Elliott Hall, but this year transfers will be scattered between Cathedral Gardens, Plimpton Hall, and Elliott Hall. The SGA statement said, “Though we applaud Residential Life for their success in housing transfer students, we are saddened that the type of residential community afforded to these students must be different this year.”
One of the solutions to the shortage was to convert coveted single rooms in the corner of Plimpton—about 170 square feet—into cramped double rooms. Hinkson said, “This was not a solution that we implemented lightly, as we had either exhausted or ruled out all other feasible options. We are mindful of the inequity of the solution for the students who, for the most part, had good numbers in the housing lottery and took great care in arranging their suites.”
Transfer student Pippa Biddle, BC ’15, who found out on Aug. 1 that she would be living in one of the Plimpton corner rooms, said she was far from thrilled about her living situation.
“I’m glad I have housing, but it’s sort of an awkward situation when you’re moving into a room that someone else expected to be their own,” Biddle said. “I would rather have to do the hour-and-a-half-long commute from my house than move in with a bunch of people who I have nothing in common with and was just thrown in because there was space.”
More than just a room
Barnard Residential Life and Housing encouraged students on the waitlist to pursue off-campus accommodations, suggesting Columbia's Off-Campus Housing Assistance and the 92nd Street Y, on Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street, where the college had reserved some discounted rooms. But for some students, on-campus housing means much more than just easy access to academic buildings—it means thousands of dollars in financial aid, as Bwog noted last week.
The administration considers students who live off-campus for any reason commuter students, making them ineligible to receive “grant aid for the housing portion of their financial aid packages,” Director of Financial Aid Nannette DiLauro wrote in an email. Should the cost of off-campus living be too great, these students will instead be forced to apply for loans.
The number of returning students who will have to become commuter students is not yet certain, but Hinkson said that the administration is trying to keep that number low. “The numbers are still fluctuating but as of today [Thursday], we have found housing for almost all returning students who requested assignments and we continue to work hard, with the hope of accommodating every student,” she wrote in an email.
For Payne, who accepted a last-minute on-campus room earlier this month, half of her grant money, or a total of $11,000, would have been lost if Barnard had not been able to find space for her.
In the cases of those nine students who have not had Payne’s luck, the SGA representatives suggested that the Office of Financial Aid “consider the specific and unusual nature of these students’ situations in setting their allotments and in determining loan packages.”
What went wrong
Hinkson said that it became clear to the administration only in July that prior measures to increase housing accommodations—such as converting some faculty housing into students housing and repurposing several dormitory lounges into four-person rooms—would not be adequate. But there is evidence to suggest that the administration recognized signs of the shortage well before then.
The policy guaranteeing housing to students on leaves of absence was altered in February. Furthermore, while Barnard reported accepting 1,141 students to the Class of 2016 in March, its website currently reports accepting 1,228 applicants—indicating that 87 first-years were admitted off of the waitlist.
This isn’t the first time Barnard students have been critical of their administration’s change in policy, either. In October, students decried Hinkson’s decision not to allow students to pay part-time tuition during semesters in which they take fewer than 12 credits.
While Hinkson said the change was meant to foster a greater sense of community across four years, students said at the time that they were about the college’s financial motivations. “The email sent to us emphasized that this policy was about building a stronger Barnard community, but it seemed to me that it was just sugarcoating the fact that it was a largely financial decision,” Andrea Egan, BC ’13, said in October.
While the administration has reached out to students, many questions still remain. Hinkson’s Friday email, sent to all Barnard students, thanked and apologized to those affected by the housing shortage and hoped to “offer some clarity” to what caused the shortage in the first place.
“This year has simply been different and unprecedented,” Hinkson said. In addition to the previously reported higher yield rate of accepted students for the past two years, 53 more returning students than in 2010 sought on-campus housing. Additionally, as many as 134 students canceled their housing accommodations each year for the last five, but this year Barnard received only 84 cancellations—a decrease of nearly 40% relative to the fewer number of students studying abroad this fall than in years past.
Hinkson wrote that the vast majority of students have, as of Friday, been accommodated, adding, “for the 9 students still awaiting assignments, we continue to make every effort to find housing.”
“I just think that Barnard has made a huge mistake in the way they’ve dealt with this and really alienated students by not being upfront with its financial woes,” the student returning from leave said, “and it’s punishing students.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that an average of 134 students canceled their housing accommodations each year, not a maximum of 134. Spectator regrets the error.