Vichos: Accommodating Injustice

Dartmouth’s housing shortage exacerbates existing economic inequality at the College.

by Nikolaos Vichos | 6/25/21 4:00am

It is no secret that the College is facing a housing crisis: “As expected, demand has exceeded our capacity,” a recent email from associate dean of residential life Michael Wooten stated bluntly. Far from attempting to permanently resolve the problem presented by the lack of student housing, the administration instead sought to find short-term solutions — such as the “one-time lottery incentive” — for the long-term issue. This situation is only exacerbating Dartmouth’s poor performance in creating a socioeconomically diverse student body. In order to create a truly diverse and equitable student body, as it claims to value, the College must begin by solving the housing problem.

It is no surprise that Dartmouth is not exactly a utopia of economic equality, but the full extent of these inequalities is still staggering. According to a report from The New York Times’s Upshot, , Dartmouth has the highest share of students coming from the top 1% of the income distribution among its peer institutions — more than a fifth of the student body. Furthermore, almost 70% of the student body comes from the top fifth of the income ladder. Meanwhile, the share of students coming from the bottom fifth of the income distribution, as well as their chances of moving up the income ladder, were some of the worst in the Ivy League — on these two measures, Dartmouth ranked sixth out of eight and last, respectively. It’s the job of the entire College to address the negative effects of inequality in the student body, including effects like differences in academic performance due to unequal levels of access to educational resources in high school.

Making quality housing available to all students could go a long way toward mitigating the impact of economic inequality at Dartmouth. Widely available housing can act as an equalizer, as it forces students from different socioeconomic backgrounds to share the same living space and facilitates the exchange of perspectives through shared experiences. Providing the same residential facilities to all students helps ensure that low income students will not be at a disadvantage in pursuing their academic goals due to their housing experience. 

The existing state of Dartmouth’s housing has the opposite effect, creating different “tiers” of living situations that put certain students at a disadvantage. This phenomenon became especially apparent during the most recent academic year, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the College sharply reduced its residential capacity to minimize the spread of the virus, a substantial number of students were not provided with on-campus housing. In general, many lower-income students had no option but to stay at home, as the cost of living in off-campus housing in the Upper Valley is exorbitant. Consequently, these students ended up missing out on a significant chunk of their college experience and taking Zoom classes from a broad range of time zones. The same cannot necessarily be said for many students higher up on the income ladder; able to afford the extremely high living costs of the Upper Valley, they were more likely to secure housing closer to campus. Consequently, the past year of housing limitations likely had a disproportionately negative effect on the college experience and academic performance of low-income students. 

The pandemic-era housing shortage has now carried over to the post-pandemic fall. Demand exceeds supply, and consequently, some students will inevitably be blocked from on-campus housing. While some more affluent students are more likely to have the option of pursuing off-campus housing in the Upper Valley and driving to campus, low-income students will probably either have to make adjustments to their D-Plans or wait and hope that they get off the waitlist, which is currently 128 students long.

The administration’s lackluster attempt at addressing this high demand reveals the scale of existing problems. The College’s solution to the housing shortage was a lottery in which up to 200 students will be given $5,000 each in exchange for withdrawing their fall on-campus housing requests. Despite this plan’s utility as a short-term cure, its poisonous side effects cannot be ignored. Giving up housing is a wrenching choice; the $5,000 award was naturally a stronger incentive for lower-income students, leaving them between a rock and a hard place. Thus, this policy may have led to a rather unfortunate situation: the on-campus student body may, temporarily, become even less socioeconomically diverse, as low-income students may have chosen to give up their on-campus housing for the monetary award.

Instead of finding a long-term solution for housing, the administration decided to spend a million dollars on a Band-Aid solution that further exacerbates the student body’s economic inequalities. While the solution is clear and has been for decades — build more housing and renovate older buildings to house more students — the members of the administration have decided to close their ears. Rather than being oblivious and unresponsive, this billion-dollar institution needs to prioritize its students’ needs and address a crisis that has been in the making for years.