Allen: How the Northwestern housing system shuts low-income students out of the social scene

Kenny Allen, Op-Ed Contributor

The housing system for Northwestern undergraduates makes it difficult for students of color to move off campus in their junior or senior years. When students with financial aid, who are often students of color, decide to move off campus, Northwestern provides refunds for housing. However, this refund does not provide enough to cover the total cost of off-campus living for many students. For example, if a student has their housing completely paid for by financial aid, their refund will only be enough to pay for nine months of living in a double on campus at Northwestern. Without supplementing with other income sources, this refund normally isn’t enough to pay for a year of rent in Evanston, which is the length of a standard lease.

This makes it so that low-income students have a difficult time moving off campus. There are so few low-income students and students of color at this school that it is rare to find a group large enough to sustain having a house together. It is even more rare to find a group of entirely low-income students who have the financial flexibility to live together in a space big enough to host events.

As long as students of color have to live on campus during their junior and senior years, it is almost impossible for them to create safe social spaces for others. Living on campus means you’re not allowed to have five people in a double room or have more than two guests at a time at night. These rules, along with a strict alcohol and drug policy, make hosting social events on campus nearly impossible. This means that a large part of the social scene, specifically parties, takes place off campus.

There are a plethora of predominantly white student groups — including club sports, fraternities and other student groups — that are able to sustain off-campus houses together. For instance, I’m a member of club Ultimate Frisbee, a notoriously white sport, and members of our club have rented out a house for more than a decade. We’ve been able to find 11 people to live in a house every year since the early 2000s, making a fun and safe space for the members of the club to spend time with each other. Club Ultimate is an example of a group that is able to pass down a house after years and years, but that story isn’t a unique one for many white groups. However, groups primarily composed of students of color haven’t been able to replicate that model.

Students of color who aren’t members of white organizations often cannot find the resources to maintain a house. There are limited spaces for people of color to spend time with each other on campus, and the depth of the social scene doesn’t nearly match that available to groups of white students. If a student of color is interested in the party scene at Northwestern, our options are usually significantly more narrow. We’re less likely to be members of the predominantly white fraternities or sororities, which control a large portion of the party scene and the social spaces at this school.

Even if we have literal access to those spaces, they might not be safe or comfortable for students of color. For example, when “Gold Digger” by Kanye West comes on at a party, I hold my breath at the chorus. I also have black friends who have expressed fear that they would be stared at and have their presence questioned if they went to a predominantly white party. These are just a few examples, but there are many reasons why a student of color might feel out of place or uncomfortable at a predominantly white party. If house parties aren’t an option, many students with fake IDs turn to bars or clubs, but that requires transportation to Chicago in addition to expensive cover fees and drinks, which makes this another inaccessible option for low-income students.

Parties at off-campus houses obviously aren’t the only way that a group can be social, but they are a solid option here. However, there are systems in place at this school that make parties hosted by predominantly white groups inaccessible to students of color and make it difficult for students of color to have their own parties. These barriers make it so that the party scene available to students of color at Northwestern is very limited.

At a school like Northwestern, being a person of color and being a low-income student are often salient identities to those who hold them, and being in a space where you are around people who share those identities can be important to one’s well-being. Northwestern is a school that can often feel isolating to students who aren’t white or come from upper middle-class families, and the inaccessibility of parties only furthers that isolation.

Kenny Allen is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.