Housing sign-up season is upon us, and although almost everyone ends up making their housing situation work in one way or another, the process is full of declarations (“No way am I living in one of those cubicles you call a double”), ultimatums (“Jamestown or bust”), reassurances (“I don’t care what I end up with; it can’t be worse than Botetourt”) and fears (“Oh God, I could totally end up in the Units”). Even though some of us can’t wait to get off campus the first chance we get, many students don’t want to pass up the convenience that on-campus housing provides — enough so that the 4,500-or-so spots available aren’t enough to provide residence to everyone who wants it.
Having hundreds of students wait-listed every year inevitably means the worst nightmares of some students are realized, and it serves as a stark reminder that we’ve come a long way from the “hundred scholars” of our founding days. The College has gotten too big for its britches, and it can’t keep sucking in its gut (that would be us) forever. The long-term housing problem is much larger than the 56-person capacity of Tribe Square or any other proposal we might think of as a panacea.
The administration does what they can to provide as much housing as possible, and there are enough off-campus options so that no one has to live two ZIP codes over, but even as the College grows, the city limits of Williamsburg won’t. No one knows for sure what the exact carrying capacity of the surrounding area is (and ordinances like the three-person rule aren’t helping), but it’s beginning to look like a long-term problem, given the sheer number of students at the College.
The additional students enrolling at the College next year — an increase of 50 in the size of the freshman class, plus 20 additional students from St. Andrews University in Scotland — leave the College in a political and financial bind. With the uncertain state of the economy, flexibility is already limited, and our coffers are already empty. The state refuses to give back any of the funding we’ve lost over the past three years, leaving it up to us to fix our financial problems. Trying to raise revenue by increasing the number of out-of-state students has had the General Assembly threatening to cut our funding; increasing in-state tuition is likely to engender the same sort of cuts Gov. Bob McDonnell slammed down on Virginia Commonwealth University when they tried to do the same thing.
The College has no choice but to become more selective, in order to keep future incoming classes at their current, semi-manageable levels. It’s not a philosophical idea about the future of the College, it’s just a matter of pragmatism. The ideals we espouse as a school are going to run into financial and logistical boundaries sooner or later. Any attempt to raise revenue by increasing the size of incoming classes simply kicks the can down the road and creates more problems than it solves.
The College doesn’t need to be restrictive in a way that shrinks the size of the student body to a number that guarantees everyone on-campus housing on campus for four years. That’s not the College’s profile, and we understand there are certain physical limitations with a campus dating back to 1693. But we also don’t want a situation in which housing becomes such a problem that it’s a significant obstacle to students’ goals. Avoiding problems down the line requires preemptive action now. Otherwise, years from now, living in the Units might be the least of our worries.