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Opinion: It should be easier to live off-campus, especially for non-traditional students

Bella Montalvo

Staff Writer

Belknap, location of the housing office. Photo by Grace Shiffrin.

Housing was the deciding factor when I chose Willamette. Overwhelmed by the high tuition and housing fees (and limited college savings), I was met with an ultimatum: either stay home and commute, or don’t go to college at all. After weeks of negotiating with Financial Aid and Housing, my petition was approved, and since then I have been commuting 45 minutes every day to and from school. All this candor is to say that housing policies are important, and as housing rates go up across the country, more and more students are met with what feel like impossible choices. Specifically, the housing policies at Willamette (and at any institution) impact non-traditional students immensely. Non-traditional and transfer students are often unaccounted for circumstances under current policies, and although some of these policies are currently changing, these changes cannot come soon enough.

Willamette University requires two years of living on campus, a policy adopted by the university in order to set up Willamette students for success. But this policy complicates the lives of non-traditional and transfer students. A two-year housing policy creates difficult situations for students already with unique circumstances (not already covered in the list of circumstances for students to circumvent the two-year policy). Additionally, the policy stating that prior to the start of the academic year students “over the age of 21” are allowed to live off campus, doesn’t make much sense. The policy directly impacts non-traditional and transfer students as they are likely to be older entering their first or second year, and finances are a huge part of making these decisions. If someone is already 21 prior to spring semester, having to pay for another semester of housing (nearly 7,000 dollars) can heavily impact the decision to stay at Willamette or choose another route.

If a student wants to circumvent the requirement to live on campus their first two years at Willamette, they are required to meet one of the following criteria. The current housing policy for circumventing the two year [housing requirement] at Willamette as of 2021 is:

“(1) married, in a civil union, or in a domestic partnership (must provide documentation); (2) over the age of 21; (3) have dependent family under their care (child or parent); or (4) are living with parent(s)/legal guardian(s) within a commutable distance of 25 miles or less."

For transfer students, the policy remains similar except that starting in the 2022-2023 academic school year, due to student feedback, only two years of college experience is required to sidestep the housing requirement as Justin Leibowitz, associate director of residence life and housing as of late July 2021, explained. Leibowitz further clarified that “there is a waiver review process for the unique circumstances that arise.” Although Housing did clarify that these policies are always up for review and reevaluation every year, specifically from the Residence Hall Association (RHA) and other student contributors, it is important to understand that the current Willamette Housing policies are vague and can disproportionately impact non-traditional students and students in lower economic brackets.

The transfer student live-on housing requirement did not change up until this year (the changes should be present for the 2022-2023 school year), meaning that transfer students have either had to deal with living on campus after already being in another institution for one to two years or will have to go through the process of overriding the requirement either by the circumstances listed above or through the waiver process. Students who enter their first year at age 20 and turn 21 during their first year cannot evade the housing requirement, possibly putting those students in awkward situations where they are housed with 18 or 19 year olds. Not allowing transfer and non-traditional students to opt out of the two year housing requirement can impact these students in various ways that are not easily seen. Socially, this can be difficult, but it's also important to acknowledge the finances in these conversations. On-campus housing is extremely expensive and non-traditional students who chose to take a gap year or transfer exist in an in-between, which for most people means the emergence of adulthood and a seeking of independence, financial and personal. Requiring folks to live on campus who fit these specific circumstances can be emotionally draining, and fighting it and going through the waiver process is never a certainty. Students who don’t have on-campus advocates to help with the process may not have as strong of a chance at getting their housing requirement appeal approved, preventing them from being able to move off-campus. Our housing department aims to be as inclusive and equitable as possible, but it does not always ensure these principles in their policies.

These specific problems outline an overall problem with housing requirements in general. Tuition prices are rising and with that so are housing rates, for a school that prides itself on being an economically diverse campus, these policies are not reflecting the alleged pride of the university. Despite reaching out to several nontraditional students for comment, I wasn’t able to take student comments. That said, I know from my own experience that I am frustrated with housing, with the pressure of having a “college experience” but not having the funds to do so and being told that, statistically speaking, students who live at home or off-campus during their first two years don’t do as well socially or academically (this info was given to me by Housing, but no source was provided). My first semester I felt punished for not being able to afford to live-on campus, and non-traditional and transfer students are the demographic that face these punishments and pressures as they are doing what we are all doing - getting an education.

All this is to say, the Housing Department is very open, welcomes complaints and student input, and has proven that they will make changes if they see fit. However, it is our responsibility as students to hold our institution accountable and raise questions. Housing policies should not be vague and confusing, but students should be made aware of their options and feel supported by their institution if they want to go a different route. Students deserve policies that are clear and detailed to understand them, while simultaneously allowing for wiggle room - on-campus housing is too expensive for the average student, and students should not be penalized for not wanting to go into debt for housing. More importantly, we need to open up these requirements to more flexibility. The current changes in the Housing policies for transfer students reflect an effort by the university to evolve with student needs, but a school that watches as students continue to slip through the cracks has a long way to go until real change is achieved.

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