Students highlight concerns, poor communication during housing selection

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Students react ti major changes made to on-campus housing contracts by ResLife staff. AVERILL MEININGER / THE FLAT HAT

When Brendon Carnell ’20 posted about a recent increase in Housing Contract cancellation fees in the Swampy Memes for Twampy Teens Facebook page, students were abuzz with different reactions. The news, which surprised some students, came shortly after the College of William and Mary’s Residence Life Office announced the temporary closing of One Tribe Place and the repurposing of Lemon Hall from an upperclassmen dorm to a freshman dorm for the incoming class of 2023. In this announcement, ResLife also established a new two year on-campus residency requirement for first year students starting in the next academic year. 

Carnell’s post materialized in a time where ResLife has faced scrutiny from many students, and it highlighted a stark difference between contract cancellation fees for the fall 2018 and fall 2019 semesters. According to housing information posted online, if a contract had been cancelled between May 1 and May 31 for the fall 2018 semester, students would have forfeited their $200 deposit and paid a $250 cancellation fee. Meanwhile, if a student now wishes to leave a housing contract between May 1 and May 31 for the upcoming fall 2019 semester, students will be obligated to pay a $2000 cancellation fee. In short, the total fees have increased by 344.44 percent. 

Director of Residence Life Maggie Evans responded to student concerns regarding increases in the housing contract’s cancellation fees alongside Director of Business Operations Chris Durden and Associate Director for Assignments Harriet Kandell.  

 “The cancellation fee increased for the first time in 2018, and for next year it was increased again, for two reasons: the elimination of the housing deposit, and the fact that more students were using the contract as a back-up plan rather than a commitment and canceling well into the summer months which made budget projections challenging,” Evans said in an email. 

Evans also mentioned that having a housing cancellation fee is abnormal and that most universities do not to provide a way for students to abandon their housing commitment once they have signed a contract. Instead, most colleges require students to fulfill their contractual obligations with little leeway for revoking them later. 

“A cancellation policy is actually a somewhat uncommon practice in university housing,” Evans said. Many institutions do not allow students to cancel; once signed, students are obligated to the full term of the contract.”  

Many students expressed their concerns on Carnell’s post in ‘Swampy Memes,’ and indicated their frustration with the fee increases. Some commentators hypothesized that ResLife may be understaffed, and others reminded their peers to always fully read a contract before agreeing to it.  

In addition to complaints over the increased cancellation fee, students also expressed their discontent with the dearth of communication and accessible information on ResLife’s website.   

“Even when I googled ‘William and Mary housing contract’ the 2018-2019 contract is what came up, not next year’s, so I had to dig a little bit further to find that, and just the language of it was weird to me,” Carnell said. The fact that it had increased that drastically and it didn’t seem like that was really something that was explicitly communicated, that the fee was going up that significantly to cancel.”

“Even when I googled ‘William and Mary housing contract’ the 2018-2019 contract is what came up, not next year’s, so I had to dig a little bit further to find that, and just the language of it was weird to me,” Carnell said. The fact that it had increased that drastically and it didn’t seem like that was really something that was explicitly communicated, that the fee was going up that significantly to cancel.”  

In response to these concerns, ResLife representatives explained what steps they were taking to communicate changes and cited that students could have attended various information sessions that ResLife hosts each year before the process of drafting the housing contract begins. 

“We hold two housing open information sessions at which we tell students that reading the contract in full is an important part of the process, due in part to the fact that changes are made each year,” Evans said in a written statement. Additionally, this message is reiterated on the Residence Life website, and there are reminders as one progresses through the housing portal informing students that it is their responsibility to read the contract terms and conditions prior to signing.”  

Evans also said that the College possesses sufficient housing for students on campus and explained that the inventory of beds on campus has increased by 771 in the last seven years. Furthermore, Evans said that oncampus housing space has grown at a faster rate than student enrollment.  ResLife also indicated that more students have sought off-campus housing in the past few years, which has increased the availability of on-campus accommodation. 

“In the past five years zoning in the city of Williamsburg changed, allowing four unrelated people to rent the same premises,” Evans said in her email. Previously it had been three. At the same time, W&M moved to a mandatory meal plan. These two situations appeared to have an impact upon higher numbers upper-class students choosing to live off campus. Since 2015 we have seen a decline in occupancy due to the issues listed above and the continued increase in room inventory.” 

Carnell wondered if the increase in the cancellation fee was due to difficulty from ResLife in filling dorms.  

“They’re making sophomore year living [on campus] mandatory to foster growth beyond freshman year, but that just seems like a forced way of saying what’s actually happening is there’s a lot of vacancy in dorms,” Carnell said. 

Orientation Aide Director Abby McKenna ’20 said that a substantial gap exists between students’ understanding of recent housing changes and the information presented by ResLife. 

“I know a problem that we’ve run into, and I think a lot of areas on campus have is trying to figure out the best way to communicate with students, either via email or social media or some other post,” McKenna said It’s something that we as a staff really struggle with, and I’ve heard other administrative offices struggle with. I think there’s always room for improvement.”  

“I know a problem that we’ve run into, and I think a lot of areas on campus have is trying to figure out the best way to communicate with students, either via email or social media or some other post,” McKenna said It’s something that we as a staff really struggle with, and I’ve heard other administrative offices struggle with. I think there’s always room for improvement.”  

Carnell also said that while ResLife is not actively attempting to hide information from students, their communication strategies need to be improved moving forward. 

“I don’t necessarily take this as an intentional thing on ResLife’s part but, even so, the lack of transparency and communication is pretty poor,” Carnell said. 

“I don’t necessarily take this as an intentional thing on ResLife’s part but, even so, the lack of transparency and communication is pretty poor,” Carnell said. 

While Evans did not mention what they thought of their offices communication with the College, she and her colleagues concluded their email with a message that they hoped every student would hear. 

“We firmly believe that living on campus for at least two years is fundamental to the W&M experience, and will continue to work hard to make W&M Residence Life the preferred housing choice for our students,” Evans said.