Junior Elizabeth Tuttle likes her dorm room — the light through the slanted window, the tranquility of living alone in a fourth-floor single. But every time housing season rolls around, she gets nervous.
It’s understandable why she’d feel that way: Tuttle started off her freshman year packed into a double with two other girls. Partway through the semester when a bed opened up in another room, she moved out. She barely knew her new roommate.
Junior Freeman Tucker also felt unhappy at the end of the 2016 spring semester. He wanted to lower his living expenses, since he’s paying for college by himself. He applied for off-campus housing. Like 106 other students last spring, he was denied that option, but found himself the first person on the waiting list for off-campus permission.
“I didn’t have a backup plan,” Tucker said. “I thought, I’m definitely going to wait a little longer.”
The permission never came. Instead, Tucker ended up in an on-campus house with seven men he didn’t know.
At the end of last semester, The Wheaton Record heard similar stories: 106 students denied off-campus, upperclassmen pushed out of apartments, students still unhoused by May 1. They all seemed to point to a troubled housing system.
And then, according to the April 21 issue of The Record, the Housing Committee said that the 2016 housing process was “no worse than any other.”
That didn’t seem right. But when The Record took a look back into the archives of Wheaton’s housing history, a new story materialized.
A troubled housing history
It was the summer of 1985, and Carolyn Ness was in trouble. Real trouble.
Ness was in charge of Wheaton’s housing that summer, and she had a surplus of 35 students — that’s 35 students with no place to sleep.
In what Ness said was “possibly the greatest challenge of her Wheaton career,” she assigned 16 transfer women to the Skylight Inn in Naperville, five miles from campus. Karla Whitlock, one of the “Skylighters,” said in a 1985 interview with The Record that “We have to drive five miles every time we forget a book.”
If 35 students had no place to sleep on campus nowadays, there would be an uproar. But for decades, Wheaton College, as well as many other colleges, has struggled to place students before the fall semester begins. “I’ve always considered it a giant game of Tetris,” said Elizabeth Clark, housing services manager.
Dean of residence life Justin Heth said, “It used to be a really horrible system.”
The April 20, 2007, issue of The Record added in its brief “In Other News” corner that 88 students were waiting for room assignments at the close of that year’s housing selection process. A similar number of students were left in the dark in 2006.
Prior to 2013, housing was selected using a painfully slow, paper-based system that required students to show up at a specific location at a certain time and attend physical lotteries to get their housing number. “The process would start right before Christmas,” auxiliary services director Tony Dawson said, “and many students left here in May not knowing what their house was.”
It wasn’t rare for several dozen students to not know where they would stay even when summer rolled around.
Heth said, “We needed to change this. It was producing so much anxiety for our students.”
StarRez to the rescue
Then came StarRez. The Australia-based company calls itself a software development firm “serving telecommunications management and residential living communities in higher education.” For Wheaton’s Housing Committee, made up of Dawson, Heth and Clark, it was a much-needed evolution.
Things improved in 2013 when StarRez was implemented, even though the Housing Committee continued to work out kinks each subsequent year. “Now, instead of it being a months-long process,” Dawson said, “it’s been shortened to weeks, and probably the majority of students know their housing by the end of May.”
In 2014 and 2015, all returning students were placed in housing at the end of the spring semester. The 2016 spring semester was the first flap that Housing encountered since StarRez was put into effect in 2013.
By their estimation, approximately eight students were left unaware of their housing situation by the start of the summer break. Compared to the several dozen students left unaware of their housing in previous years, eight was a significant improvement. But it was still enough to rile students, especially those students who knew nothing but the process facilitated by StarRez.
Dawson said, “They didn’t know how awesome it was compared to just four years prior.”
Last year’s tension boils down to a communication problem. The Housing Committee understood that housing was always a tough process because they had the benefit of seeing things from a broader, historical perspective. Students who enrolled after 2012 had no reason to expect anything other than a flawless housing selection process, given the successes of the previous two years.
“We have to set realistic expectations,” Dawson cautioned.
How does housing work?
Two weeks after students receive their first housing email, applications open up online. This is where students declare their intent to attend Wheaton in the fall. This reported information is important, since Housing uses that data to begin the process of creating living situations for students.
That data, however, is always mutating, and off-campus housing numbers must be calculated without the use of StarRez software.
Information falls through the cracks when students forget to inform housing that their plans have changed or when unexpected circumstances require them to return to campus earlier than expected. That failure on the part of the students triggers a domino effect that limits the choices of other students down the line.
This is the human element of the housing system, which complicates even the most elegant software. “We’re dependent on our inputs,” Dawson said.
How does Wheaton stack up?
Frustrated students tempted to pack their bags for Taylor or Calvin might want to reconsider.
James Baumann, the director of communications for the Association of College and University Housing Officers International, said, “The scenario where there are more students than there are spaces is not uncommon by any stretch of the imagination.”
Universities nationwide struggle to house all of their students. No single school has the system down, and no portal — like StarRez — has perfected it. Flexibility to see variations on housing set-ups helps mitigate the unpredictability for those in charge of planning housing. But in the end, Baumann said that complexity in housing for any college community is “the nature of the beast.”
Some problems will go away if someone in charge throws enough money at it. That isn’t necessarily true for Wheaton’s housing. Getting better information is more important than buying a better system or bringing different professionals from other schools in to solve the problem.
Since the only lever that housing can pull is the number of off-campus permissions, they need to have accurate numbers to start with. And that all begins with the numbers that students provide.
So it’s not as if Wheaton is not allocating enough funds to reduce student anxiety about their housing. Instead, much of the onus is on students to accurately report their data.
Heth said that in order to make sure students have beds by the time they leave for the summer, they will forgo a few freshman rooms that they usually retain as part of a cushion.
Heth also invited disgruntled students to chat with him. “I would hope that if you’ve been frustrated with this, come talk. I’d be glad to sit down and talk with you.”
After his summer struggles, Tucker now resides at the Teresa House and finds his situation better than he expected. As a conservatory student, living so close to McAlister Hall is helpful.
Heth said, “My hope is that despite maybe not getting their first preference … they can still have some great community with the people they’re placed with, and that the whole year’s not lost because of that.”
Students pay thousands of dollars each year to be housed. Implicit in that contract is an expectation of reasonable housing and a desire to avoid added anxiety from the sight of housing emails in their inboxes.
At the same time, perspective matters. In a system inherently dependent on student input, “healthy, realistic expectations” seem to be vital to the process. Coordinating anything that involves 2,400 students is complex, and the evidence shows that variables can be managed more easily than they can be predicted.
The Record’s Special News Report team is Kirkland An, Lucy Rose Till and Anders Rotto.