York College students say housing rules unfair, want change
Students discuss housing at York College of Pennsylvania. York Dispatch
Some York College students say several recent rule changes make it "nearly impossible" for students to move out of dormitories and into more affordable off-campus housing.
More than 1,000 people have signed a Change.org petition regarding seniors not being able to live off campus, which noted, "At most other colleges, students are allowed to live off campus after their freshman year if they choose to do so."
However, a quick online search showed more than a dozen campuses that required students to live on campus for two to four years, citing reasons such as academic benefit and community connection.
The college instituted a campus residency requirement years ago — dating back to at least 2000 — for all but commuters, although students can be released from that requirement if they apply and meet certain conditions.
In a January letter to students, York College President Pamela Gunter-Smith said the rule was intended to provide "a high-quality holistic education" that "is best accomplished in an on-campus residential setting."
In 2007 the college saw a $250 million campus building boom, which included an athletic complex, a performing arts center — and new residence halls.
Now, in an effort to keep dorm rooms occupied, the college is again raising the bar for students seeking an exemption from the residency requirement, frustrating some students trying to arrange housing for next school year.
The college notified students in January that the course requirement was increased from 75 to 85 credits, meaning students hoping to live off campus would have to have at least 85 credits under their belts.
The campus must reach a certain capacity of students living on campus, and enrollment was low last year, officials said.
The college also raised the requirement last year, from 70 to 75 course credits.
Raising the number of credits students need in order to be considered for off-campus housing creates a more realistic expectation of how many will actually be released, said Mary Dolheimer, the school's assistant vice president of communications.
It reflects the college's best estimate of campus housing capacity, but the numbers can fluctuate for various reasons, she said.
For instance, not all freshmen who make a deposit in May end up coming to the school, she said, and some upperclassmen decide not to return. Other students might not be living on campus because of internships, co-ops or clinical rotations.
In past years, Dolheimer said, the college has released more students when it could not accommodate them in campus housing. As numbers shift and capacity rises, students who are not initially approved for release can be released later in the year, she added.
The timing of the rule change — the college announced it in January, as it did last year — left some students scrambling to get out of leases while their planned roommates were left in the lurch.
"You're splitting up groups of people, friends can't live with friends," said junior Sarah Spitalnick.
Off-campus housing applications typically become available in the first half of the spring semester — which began Jan. 16 this year — according to the online academic calendar.
And while students are warned not to sign leases before they're approved to live off campus, Spitalnick said if they do not take the risk in November or December, off-campus choices will be slim or gone, and leases will be more expensive.
"You need to let us know so we can prepare," she said, appealing to the school's administration.
Realistic expectation: Dohlheimer said off-campus housing is not guaranteed, even if students meet the credit requirement, and they know this.
But students say a late release just creates more stress with rooming situations.
"It’s just a huge hassle for everyone," said senior Haley Courtney, who ended up living with Spitalnick on campus after not reaching the credit requirement last year.
Courtney said when her sister was a York College junior, she was notified of her release close to the beginning of summer, when on-campus housing selection was about over. Her on-campus roommates had to find another roommate at the last minute.
Spitalnick also says the credit requirement is just unrealistic — students would have to have more than 18 credits each year to reach it, which she said is discouraged for underclassmen.
Courtney said the only reason she had enough credits this year is because she had to do an extra year of school, giving her more than 100 credits.
Working with students: The administration is aware that students are upset about housing this year and has been working with the Student Senate on solutions, Dolheimer said.
The senate — which includes a representative from each class year — acts as a liaison between students and the administration and is the best avenue for students to be heard, she said.
"They do take seriously the role they play and the voice of students," she added.
Dolheimer says students may be frustrated because they have not yet seen change, but that doesn't mean the administration has not heard them. Some concerns might be under consideration for long-term policies, she said.
She encouraged students to reach out to the administration directly through the director of resident life, the dean of student affairs and the president.
"I know there’s an effort to (address concerns) and encourage students to try and get voices heard," she said. "That only happens when we have appropriate feedback."
Communication: But students feel the school has not been reliable with communication — namely, with a discrepancy in the off-campus housing application process.
Spitalnick said two of her roommates emailed or met with the director of resident life to get exceptions to off-campus requirements, but she was told she had to go through a formal appeal process with an anonymous review board.
Courtney said she was told that she was put on the waiting list but never heard back.
Dolheimer confirmed the school considers multiple factors when approving students for release, such as academic and disciplinary standing, but she could not speak generally about how the process is handled because the director of resident life works with students on an individual basis.
It's about choice: Despite the school's efforts to accommodate students on or off campus, for some it's just about the principle of choice.
By Monday, May 7, 1,059 people had signed the Change.org petition regarding seniors and off-campus housing, which alleges "enrollment is low for the college and therefore they are taking this out on the senior students by refusing them off campus housing."
Courtney added, "We’re all adults, and if we don’t want to live on campus, we should have that option."
Students have reasons for not wanting to live on campus, such as cost.
Off-campus housing ranges from $3,000 to $3,500 for roughly a yearlong lease, Spitalnick said, while Dolheimer confirmed a traditional double-room dorm on campus is $6,330 for the school year.
Courtney says while it’s less expensive to live on Main Campus than West Campus, students are required to get a meal plan at a minimum of $1,000, which she had to do her sophomore year.
The room and board costs are in addition to the tuition and fees, which the college lists at $20,100 for 2018-19 — $31,300 including the traditional dorm and more extensive meal plan options, which falls under the $32,410 average tuition and fees for private four-year colleges, according to the College Board.
Dolheimer noted there are also a number of positives to living on campus, such as students getting the safety net of campus security, dining services, resident life and an environment more conducive to learning.
While Dolheimer recognizes the added expense, she points to financial aid for those who cannot afford to live on campus.
In Spitalnick's situation, however, she said the financial aid offered did not account for the fact that her stepfather's income did not go toward her education.
For individual financial aid concerns, Dolheimer again points to the difficulty of having policies that try to account for each person's specific situation.
The college is in a challenging spot with trying to balance the needs of the institution with the needs of students, she said.
"We are trying to address individual student cases as best we can," Dolheimer said. "Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t."