By Gabriella Levine
This article was written by Gabriella Levine ’14, Emily Brower ’14 and Matt Olson ’13.
On Monday, Feb. 17 Nathaniel Raynor ’15 created a petition entitled, “Movement to re-examine the current Union College off-campus housing process.” The petition calls for the college’s administration to examine its current policies regarding releasing students off-campus.
Raynor is currently facing a predicament that he claims several other rising seniors are similarly confronted with. In the fall of his junior year, Raynor signed a lease with a group of fellow juniors to live in an apartment off campus on University Place. But on Monday, Raynor and his prospective housemates were denied the housing releases necessary to live off-campus by the Office of Residential Life.
At the beginning of February, 306 rising seniors applied for off-campus releases and 218 were released. Raynor and his potential housemates were among the 88 students whose release applications were denied.
As the Union College Student Handbook outlines, Union is a residential college, and students are expected to live on campus for all four years. The Handbook states, “All Union students must live on campus provided that space is available but a small amount of senior students may be released each year.”
Additionally, according to the Off Campus Lottery Application for the Academic Year 2014-2015, “A random lottery will be conducted if applicant numbers exceed the designated number of students to be released.”
The Student Handbook notes that additional factors for this process include, among other things, conduct history and current enrollment.
Raynor admitted that he was aware of the Student Handbook’s housing policy prior to signing his lease, but he did not think there would be difficulty with getting released from the campus. Though the policy is stated in the handbook, Raynor also argues that “the amount of information and publication of the rules regarding off campus housing needs drastic improvement.”
“We continue, as we have all along, to encourage students to familiarize themselves with college policies, specifically the off-campus release policy if they are interested in pursuing this in their senior year,” Director of Residential Life Amanda Bingel remarked.
After Raynor received the news that he was denied a release, he personally saw a need to re-evaluate Union’s off-campus release policy.
“I started really thinking about this idea of starting a petition and opening the door to re-evaluate the campus’s policy. It gained momentum when I didn’t get released,” he said.
According to Raynor, the release process has particularly bad timing, since students apply for and are granted release during the winter and spring terms of junior year. But Raynor points out that off-campus apartment hunting is extremely competitive, forcing students to sign leases at an earlier time, sometimes even as sophomores, in order to secure an off-campus housing option.
Bingel strongly advises against students signing leases prior to being released from campus housing.
“Students are strongly discouraged from signing off-campus leases before being officially granted a release from Union’s residency requirement,” Bingel stated.
Raynor estimated that because he was not released off-campus, he and his housemates would lose rent owed to their landlord. “I’m in a situation when, in my position, my house collectively has to pay over $30,000 to the landlord based off of a document,” Raynor said. “There is a tremendous amount of money that is now legally owed to these landlords.”
The $30,000 in lost rent was mentioned in the petition, and Raynor said that it is unique to his own housing dilemma.
In just over a day, Raynor’s petition gained 584 signatures, as of 6 p.m. of Feb. 18. To Raynor, this was a testament to the student body’s desire to reform the release policy. Raynor asserted that the number of people who have signed the petition represents “over 25 percent of the student body.” However, since the petition is open to anyone to sign, Raynor explained that he has no method of documenting signatures from current students of the campus community. Those who sign the petition are only required to put their name, full or abbreviated, zip code and an email address.
Mac McCann, for instance, from Elon University in North Carolina signed the petition, as did Ian Burn, from Dallas, Texas, even after pointing out that he was not a student at the college.
Nevertheless, numerous current students have signed the petition, and Raynor contends that he has also witnessed multiple parents and alumni add their names to the cause.
One parent, who stated that her son is a current junior in the same position as Raynor, explained in a comment on the petition, “As a parent I am quite disappointed that my son and his friends are being denied the ability to live off campus when, for the past three years, they have been told there is not enough housing on campus. We never considered this would be an issue.”
The problem of overcrowding in freshmen residence halls is something that Raynor believes contributed to the overall desire of rising seniors to move off campus this year. Raynor said that, as an incoming freshman, he and other classmates were offered a tuition reduction if they agreed to live in a “forced triple.”
“My class had the option of taking reduced tuition in order to live in makeshift rooms, and because of that, we felt that, we’ve always had this image of overcrowding,” Raynor explained. “When you enter a school, and they’re offering tuition reduction for something like that, you’re immediately going to start thinking of senior year, and wanting to get off campus, rather than living in a tiny room,” he continued.
Last year, in January of 2013, the Office of Residential Life opened the release process to sophomores due to a limited number of spaces still available for off campus release.
“What needs to be understood is that my class witnessed the class below it getting released off campus as sophomores. That created a concept that we are all going to get released because they just released sophomores,” Raynor said, speaking of the January 2013 sophomore release situation.
Bingel explained that this was a rare circumstance, caused by a lack of seniors and juniors seeking off-campus releases. The situation, according to Bingel, was also due in part to class sizes, with a small rising senior class and a large rising junior class. “The 2013-2014 [school year] was the only year where sophomores were permitted to live off-campus. As the policy states, rising seniors are considered for off-campus release. If there are not enough rising seniors that apply for release, the process may be opened up to rising juniors,” she said.
Moving forward, Raynor is unsure of his next step in determining where he will live next year. Raynor and many of his potential housemates are members of a Greek organization whose house will be filled to maximum capacity next year due to a large pledge class; thus, they cannot move into their Greek House for their senior year.
Raynor is tentatively planning to live in and pay rent for the off campus house he has already signed a lease for, while still paying Union’s room and board fee of approximately $9,258 for the 2014-2015 academic year. This would mean that, since Raynor would be paying room and board, he would effectively be granted an unoccupied residential space on campus unless he were assigned a roommate.
Some have questioned the school’s reasons for not releasing students into off-campus housing, suggesting financial motives for preventing students from living off-campus.
Vice President of Administration and Finance Diane Blake asserted that housing questions are not necessarily driven by financial motives.
“Union takes great pride in being a residential college. The entire campus benefits from the social and academic opportunities that accrue to being full time members of a residential community,” Blake stated.
The college, according to Bingel, functions in accordance with an overall operating budget which sets forth that the campus must achieve a 95 percent, three-term occupancy average in all residential spaces, inclusive of Greek Houses, Theme Houses, Minerva Houses and residence halls. This 95 percent occupancy policy sheds light upon the college’s need to limit the amount of off-campus releases it grants each year.
Bingel maintains that the policy has “always been in place” as an aspect of the college’s operating procedure.
Raynor ultimately believes that the administration should not restrict the number of seniors that wish to live off campus. “It should be the prerogative of a senior to choose if he or she wants to live off campus,” Raynor stated.
“When you’re on campus, you are separated and limited to this kind of ivory tower,” he said. “Part of being a student here is being in Schenectady, and what better way to be part of Schenectady than living outside of our iron fences, branching out and dealing with real world situations,” Raynor continued.