NU Declassified: Ruminating on Room Selection

Ali McCadden, Senior Staffer

After a year-long pause, Northwestern is reinstating its two-year on-campus live-in requirement for the 2021-22 academic year. Although about 80 percent of first year students lived on campus in 2020-21, according to Residential Services, students in the other 20 percent have lived in off-campus apartments, at home or even in different countries. But this upcoming academic year, that’s all changing. During room selection for returning students in Spring Quarter, students encountered technical difficulties, miscommunications and fierce competition for the best dorms on campus. Many students were forced to resort to their backup plans and their backups for their backup plans.

MEGHANA KARAN: When we saw that there weren’t any rooms we called and we were like, “Is this a glitch or is it actually all the rooms are full?” and they’re like, “We don’t really know.”

[MUSIC]

ALI MCCADDEN: After a year-long pause, Northwestern is reinstating its two-year on-campus live-in requirement for the 2021-22 academic year. Although according to Residential Services approximately 80 percent of first-year students lived on campus this year, students in the other 20 percent have lived in off-campus apartments, at home or even in different countries. But next year that’s all changing. During room selection for returning students last spring, students encountered technical difficulties, miscommunications and fierce competition for the best dorms on campus. Many students were forced to resort to their backup plans and their backups for their backup plans. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ali McCadden. This is NU Declassified, a look into how Wildcats thrive and survive at Northwestern.

[MUSIC]

MEGHANA KARAN: When I got my priority number, I got a really good one, like less than 100. So I was like, “Oh, I’m all set. I can basically live wherever I want,” which was not the case, actually.

ALI MCCADDEN: That was Weinberg freshman Meghana Karan. When Residential Services sent out randomized priority numbers to returning students for the 2021-22 housing selection, her assigned number was 81 out of over 1,800. She planned on living in a suite of four single rooms in Kemper Hall with three other students.

MEGHANA KARAN: I talked to a bunch of upperclassmen, and they were like, “If you have less than 100, you can definitely get Lincoln or Kemper.”

ALI MCCADDEN: But when she logged onto the housing portal at 9:45 a.m. on the first day of room selection, all of the single suites in Kemper were filled. She called Residential Services to see what the problem was.

MEGHANA KARAN: We called and were like, “Is this a glitch or is it actually all the rooms are full?” and they’re like, “We don’t really know.”

ALI MCCADDEN: After putting Meghana on hold and investigating the issue, Residential Services eventually told her that the problem was not a glitch. They posted an announcement on the housing portal at around 10 a.m. saying that all of the single suites in Kemper and 560 Lincoln were indeed filled. Another student, Weinberg freshman Leo Malavet, faced a similar situation.

LEO MALAVET: We didn’t have information. In the group chat everyone was saying they were trying to call housing or contact housing while it was going on, and everyone was on hold, which, I mean, I’m sure they got a lot of calls, but no one had information, and it was very confusing. It seemed like this was going to run kind of smooth, and (priority) numbers would mean something. That’s the impression that students got — the system would accommodate at least a good amount of people. They tried to categorize everybody and spread it out, so you’re thinking it’d be kind of even and a little less stressful.

ALI MCCADDEN: Like Meghana, Leo planned to live in a suite of four single rooms in Kemper.

LEO MALAVET: Our whole plan kind of shifted because we had a nice group, and we all had good numbers and then it moved way faster than we thought. So we kind of had to scramble for a new group. It was kind of a mess once they ran out that fast. Also, side note, they ran this during class time, which is very annoying because I was stressing over this while in Spanish.

ALI MCCADDEN: And what do you think Leo’s priority number was?

LEO MALAVET: 147. Decent, not decent enough for Kemper or Lincoln though.

[MUSIC]

ALI MCCADDEN: So what happened here? Did Residential Services anticipate the more sought-after dorms would fill up this fast? What caused the miscommunication between students and housing? I sat down with Residential Services’ Jenny Douglas to find out.

[MUSIC FADE OUT]

JENNY DOUGLAS: We did feel like the process was put forth as it was supposed to and it went through. So we did not experience any issues that raise concerns on our end.

ALI MCCADDEN: Jenny is the interim director of operations and services for Residential Services. She works closely with the occupancy management team, which handles the room assignment process.

JENNY DOUGLAS: We think that it’s pretty beneficial for students from different classes to live together and to experience things. We look for there to be a balance, and so we make about half of the rooms in every building available for the returning student room selection process and then, however returning students select, they select. If they don’t select all the rooms that were marked for them, then those would go back into the pool for incoming students or room changes, transfer students.

ALI MCCADDEN: Jenny told me that at the end of room selection, returning students took up, on average, 49.5 percent of the space in each residence hall and residential college. But this 50-50 occupancy split for incoming freshmen and returning students doesn’t always work out, depending on the demand for certain dorms.

JENNY DOUGLAS: In Kemper, that building tends to be more returning students because of the layout, because the suite style is great for returning students, but sometimes it’s challenging for new students to really dive into their community and meet more people. So Kemper usually ends up being more returning students.

ALI MCCADDEN: So if a dorm like Kemper has more space for returning students, why couldn’t Meghana’s 81 priority number get her a single suite?

JENNY DOUGLAS: If someone’s priority number was slated to go at 10 a.m., in this example, and they couldn’t get through, it’s because those rooms were selected by people with higher priority numbers earlier in the day. Of course, 560 Lincoln and Kemper are alluring to returning students because there is some suite-style living there. So we know that those are popular destinations. But I don’t know that we had an expectation for what time there would be no spaces left in those buildings.

[MUSIC]

ALI MCCADDEN: Meghana and Leo were still able to get double rooms in Kemper, so all hope was not lost for them. And as for all the students out there who got stuck with a bad priority number and ended up having to choose a room in Bobb Hall, they’ll survive. But with the on-campus housing requirement back in action, dorms will be at full occupancy next school year, and campus is going to be much more crowded.

LEO MALAVET: I get why they’re doing it. I feel like it does make sense — they want to go back to how they wanted the school to run. It puts some people like me in a weird place where I moved into an apartment (this past academic year) because that just worked best for my family. And now I’m going to have to pick what I need to move into a dorm and put a lot of this into storage, so I’m going to deal with having my own storage container now, most likely.

ALI MCCADDEN: Leo tried to appeal his situation and get Residential Services to waive his housing requirement for next year, but he was told the process is difficult and requires a lot of paperwork, so he decided to just go through with living in a dorm next year. Though the residency requirement was just implemented in 2018, Jenny said Northwestern isn’t likely to reconsider the requirement, even after the pause.

JENNY DOUGLAS: Philosophically, it’s the direction that the University is going in. So I don’t see us modifying it. I think it was modified out of necessity to make sure that people felt like they could be as safe as possible during the pandemic, but I don’t see a change in the residency requirement ahead.

[MUSIC]

JENNY DOUGLAS: I think once we have the opportunity to reflect and think about the process from this spring, we will think about some of the feedback that you’ve even provided today, some of the things that we may hear over the next several months, and then figure out what was due to COVID and what is something that is an opportunity for our process. We’re always looking for some improvements for the student experience and so, the door is open. If people have feedback we definitely want to hear it.

ALI MCCADDEN: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Ali McCadden. Thanks for listening to another episode of NU Declassified. This episode was reported and produced by me. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Madison Smith, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Jacob Fulton.

Email: [email protected]ern.edu
Twitter: @amccadd

Related Stories:
Defining Safe: Living in Limbo
Two-year campus residency requirement to be reinstated this fall
Foster-Walker Complex to shift from quarantine housing to residence hall