Gimme shelter (the student housing crisis at University of Maryland)

I was an opinion columnist for University of Maryland’s student newspaper The Diamondback for three semesters before I graduated. The columns I wrote are still up on the web archive, but I’d rather not depend on The Diamondback to host them indefinitely. Thus, I have decided to repost them on this blog, not only to archive them in a place under my control, but also so you readers here can have an idea of my writing in college. Here is the thirteenth of my opinion columns, Gimme shelter, originally published February 2, 2007.

During the past few decades, Maryland has become a significantly better university. Average GPAs and test scores of admitted students have shot way up. Maryland is no longer considered a safety school by so many of its applicants but is now a first choice. Its ability to attract top researchers and professors has increased significantly, and a look at Maryland’s rankings among other universities shows a sharp upward trend.

Yet Maryland also faces some disadvantages in comparison to its peer universities. It has a relatively small endowment, a consequence of its very recent ascension to greatness. It faces a perpetually high level of crime as a result of its geographical location, something that many other universities do not have to deal with. And it faces the looming threat of a lack of on-campus housing that too few have yet realized is a significant problem.

The size of the waiting list for on-campus housing continues to grow year after year, even as the annual admissions numbers have stayed more or less level during the past five years. A larger percentage of students than ever before now want to live on the campus and enjoy all aspects of the college experience Maryland has to offer. In a few short decades, this university has transformed itself from a predominantly commuter school to a genuine live-in college community. However, we are not entirely there yet, as many students, particularly transfer students from other colleges, are denied the opportunity to live on the campus.

No new dorm have been built in a long time. We have seen the addition of new suite-style living spaces with South Campus Commons, as well as University Courtyard and University View (both of which are privately owned and managed). But these residences are primarily intended for and inhabited by upperclassmen and do not help to bring new underclassmen into the fold of the university community the way real dorms do.

Having realized this, Maryland’s administration has had a plan in the works for many years now to construct a new thousand-bed dorm on North Campus. This new dorm would re-invigorate the stagnant growth of the on-campus community and would be able to house every single person on the wait list. Unfortunately, the university’s request last year to take on the new level of debt necessary to pay for construction of this dorm was denied. As a result, the future of Maryland’s burgeoning growth is uncertain.

Luckily, a few important positions have changed hands since this unfortunate denial last year. Martin O’Malley has replaced Robert Ehrlich as Maryland’s governor. O’Malley has already demonstrated that he is friendlier toward student interests than Ehrlich ever was. For instance, O’Malley’s first new budget called for a tuition freeze for Maryland’s public university system. Hopefully, now that O’Malley holds the reigns of the state’s government, the outcome will be different when Maryland next attempts to secure funding to build this long-awaited dorm.

The university administration also must continue to push for the construction of new dorms. Administrators have done a wonderful job securing deals with outside companies to provide privately owned and operated student-oriented housing near the campus, but nothing can really replace true on-campus, dorm-style housing. Yes, they may not be the most luxurious option, but dorms are unique in their unparalleled ability to quickly integrate new students into the campus community. Suite-style living is a good fit for upperclassmen who have adjusted to the social environment and want to focus on their studies. But let’s not deny anyone the opportunity to live those seminal college experiences that only dorm life can provide.

In the time since I wrote this column, the housing crunch on campus has only gotten worse. Seniors can no longer live in the dormitories at all, and it’s very very hard for juniors to continue living in the dorms. The only other options are university-affiliated suite-style living or off-campus apartment buildings and houses. Luckily, the administration has finally admitted that there is a real problem, and they are making plans to build more dorms.

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