May 28, 2015

Free passage

Increasing house subsidies for low-income students, as Coulter House has done, fosters inclusivity.

Prospective students who consider applying to this University often hear that “the College Houses are one of the signatures of a University of Chicago undergraduate education.” However, this “signature” experience is not available to every student. The UChicago housing program prioritizes maintaining a tight-knit intellectual and social community without also equally focusing on meeting the needs of low-income students within those houses. There are students on this campus who struggle with purchasing even the most basic goods; there’s simply no way that they can afford house trips and events—which are arguably integral to fostering the house community. A good proportion of students are alienated from their peers not by choice, but because of their financial situation. On top of the College’s participation in the U-Pass program and SG’s proposal for a Student Leadership Stipend program, both of which aim to let all students have the full UChicago experience, implementing an expanded house subsidy program would be an effective, simple way of making house cultures more inclusive.

One house in particular has done just that. With only 42 residents, Coulter House in Burton-Judson is the second smallest house in the entire system; however, it has one of the largest house funds due to a successful student-run fundraiser. Resident Head Bettina Houlihan, in conjunction with Resident Assistant Udayan Vaidya and the house residents, decided to use these funds to implement a program known as the Coulter Pass, which aims to reduce the costs of house trips for lower-income students. The Coulter Pass allows any resident to receive twice the usual subsidy on any house trip. For example, if a low-income resident wanted to go on a house trip to a restaurant on a Saturday night, they would normally be allocated a subsidy of $5 to $7; with the Coulter Pass, they receive twice the usual amount—in this example, $10 to $14. This amount will cover transportation fees in addition to some of the costs of the meal, making all the difference for a low-income student. Events that require residents to pitch in if they want to participate, such as communal Thanksgiving or Valentine’s Day dinners, are altogether free with the Coulter Pass. To be eligible for the Coulter Pass, a resident can e-mail the Resident Head at any time in the year and arrange a private meeting to talk about the logistics of the pass itself in addition to other forms of financial support outside the house. The procedure is designed to be as simple as possible in order to make it clear that low-income residents should not be intimidated by the process of taking advantage of such a resource.

Through an online anonymous survey, Coulter House collected feedback on the impact that the pass has had on house life. One student knew that “one of the first things [to] cut back on would be house trips.” Residents were encouraged to take the survey even if they had not used the Coulter Pass and responses demonstrated that the Coulter Pass was valued even by non-users. For instance, a resident who had yet to use the Coulter Pass said, “Although I’ve never yet used the Coulter Pass, the possibility of there coming a time when I need it is very real for me. With the increase in tuition costs, my family’s putting even more than last year into this school, and that’s very stressful for my parents. It’s comforting to know that if I ever need the Coulter Pass, it’s there for me, and I’ll be able to participate in House events without burdening my family.”

Some students on campus who cannot afford to go on house trips for Saturday dinners have proposed having the dining halls open Saturday nights while others have encouraged low-income students to use their Maroon Dollars to purchase dinner at various on-campus locations. Although both of these proposed solutions address the problem of helping students afford food, they don’t address the fact that low-income students are still excluded from participating in social opportunities that are supposed to be the highlights of house life. As one of the survey respondents said, “Providing the economic means for low-income students to attend these trips will expand the inclusiveness of house culture, and may even foster greater diversity within housing.” And the program has expanded inclusiveness. Vaidya commented that the Coulter Pass made him more conscious about offering enough house activities that have a smaller financial burden on students, and that it also alleviates some stress knowing that there would be extra support available for students who needed it. He also notes that house participation in trips increased after the Coulter Pass’s implementation. In addition, Houlihan observed that the costs of house trips are a part of a larger important issue. Offering the Coulter Pass on the sole condition of having a private conversation with the RHs turned out to be a great way to encourage residents to talk about their financial struggles and seek help.

Last month, the University announced that certain dorms will be permanently closed and that the house names will be retired. Although such a drastic change is lamentable, student efforts could focus on making sure that the residents of the newly constructed North Campus are able to enjoy house life more fully than before. For houses that have more residents, a portion of the donors’ money could be used to increase house funds and better accommodate those who lack the means to afford weekly house outings. Although the identities of the dorm buildings should not be taken lightly, let us not forget about caring for the lives of the students who live in the buildings themselves. No one should be barred from socializing and bonding with their housemates.

Vo Ram Yoon is a third-year in the College majoring in public policy.