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Editorial: Make the on-campus housing policy utilitarian and just

Arizona Daily Wildcat
February 1, 1999
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Fairness is an arbitrary value when it comes to allocation in the face of scarcity and high demand. And when it comes to choice on-campus housing, demand and scarcity are the controlling factors.

Residence Life's solution to this dilemma of demand and scarcity equates utilitarianism with justice. The on-campus housing authority last week decided to reverse its long-standing policy of giving returning residents first shot at their preferred residence halls and rooms in favor of incoming freshmen. The new policy guarantees placement to all freshmen who submit their applications by May 1 and would dole out whatever spaces remain among returners. Officials have not settled on whether they will use lottery or class rank to make the final split.

The policy, which stands the old system on its head, serves freshmen and may well serve the university. Incoming freshman will have a much improved chance at getting into the residence halls and getting the hall they prefer. Would-be returning residents may be so disaffected with the dim likelihood of their getting their residence hall of choice, or the larger room of choice (which hitherto has been the domain of returning residents) that they may simply elect in greater numbers not to return. This would spare many incoming freshmen next year the perennial shuffle and squeezing for lack of on-campus housing that has plagued the start of each new school year.

The university may stand to benefit in terms of increased numbers of students opting to attend the University of Arizona rather than another institution, drawn by the promise of guaranteed housing.

So far, the new policy seems the most utilitarian. Increased housing for freshmen means more satisfied freshmen and possibly higher retention if studies correlating higher grades with on-campus housing are to be believed.

Viewed thus, residence hall officials may argue that the new policy is the most just way to allocate the scarce resource of housing and this new system is long overdue.

But this would be overlooking the 4,800 current residents, and the 3,600 current freshmen in particular who came here to be raked over by the former Residence Life policy putting freshmen last and must now be raked over by the new Residence Life policy putting returners last.

Is there any way to make the new housing allocation method both utilitarian and just? Unfortunately, the ideal case is unobtainable, but there is a way to lessen the injustice.

Officials say that all freshmen applying before May 1 will be guaranteed placement in the same breath as they estimate that this guarantee will likely mean 250 more freshman will be able to be accommodated, and between 200 and 300 non-freshmen turned away.

But with such an open-ended policy, the estimates have a large percentage of error and returning students will have to bear the burden of the error. Perhaps an influx of freshmen will apply before May 1 and the university, in abiding by their promise, must turn away more non-freshmen than they now predict.

Rather than extend such an open-ended offer, officials should guarantee placement to freshmen in numerical terms to ensure their estimates will bear out. They should then split the remaining spaces not by lottery among returners but by giving preferences to returning sophomores, so sophomore may at least experience some preference during the course of their on-campus housing experience.

This would serve two ends: ensure that at least some older students will remain in the residence halls to enrich newcomers' experiences, and bridge the gap between a utilitarian policy and a just policy.