Tired of Tiers
On July 23, 2018, Tufts announced a reconfiguration of the pricing of its on-campus housing system. Starting with the 2019 – 2020 school year, the University will move forward with tiered costs for on-campus housing, which will stratify different types of accommodations based on “variations in room configuration, kitchen access, and amenities,” according to the University’s announcement. This is a significant departure from the flat-rate system Tufts has historically utilized, under which all students paid the same rate for different types of on-campus housing. The new system has nine different tiers for nine different types of housing, ranging from $8,220 to $10,219 a year, in contrast to the $7,934 students currently pay to live on campus.
Next year, all students will see an increase of at least 3.6 percent for their housing costs—the typical rate of increase for the past five years. However, only students who select the lowest-tiered options, such as traditional doubles, triples, and quads will see their housing costs increase at this standard rate. Students in the highest-tiered housing, such as a single in the new Community Housing accommodations (CoHo), or in Sophia Gordon Hall (SoGo) will see a change from $7,934 to $10,219—a whopping 28.8 percent surge. Students living in middle-tiered housing will also experience a spike in the rate of increase for their housing costs.
The University’s budget is a major driving force behind the new system, reported Christopher Rossi, Associate Dean of Student Affairs. “The funds [currently] brought in by room revenue do not cover the upkeep of the buildings,” he explained. “And that’s not construction, this is upkeep.” Rossi noted that the on-campus housing maintenance budget has been an issue for several years.
Jonah O’Mara Schwartz, a senior who is a Tufts Community Union (TCU) Senator and organizer for Tufts Housing League (THL), a student group that advocates for housing justice in the community, expressed confusion regarding this explanation. “They’ve been packing people as efficiently as possible, charging the market rate, and still losing money,” he said. “There’s something weird about that.”
Dean Rossi and Mary Pat McMahon, Dean of Student Affairs, both conveyed that the tiered system is also tied to a need for increased on-campus housing. In May 2018, the Tufts Daily reported that Tufts has the capacity to house only 63 percent of its student body. This percentage is especially low compared to other universities in the area, such as Brandeis University and Boston University, which house 75 percent of their students. Tufts has responded to this shortage in two major ways: bed optimization (turning single rooms into doubles and doubles into triples) and the renovation of wood frame houses into CoHo—new student housing for upperclassmen. Thus far, these initiatives have added 145 beds.
While Dean McMahon and Dean Rossi said the tiered housing system could be attributed to neither CoHo nor bed optimization, the need for dorms was relevant to the decision-making process. “We’re trying to address multiple issues,” Dean McMahon said. “We want more juniors and seniors on campus, and we want to invest in our housing stocks so that students want to be here.” However, Jianmin Qu, Dean of the School of Engineering, wrote via email that “the decision to introduce tiered housing at Tufts was made independent of the development of CoHo and the bed optimization initiative.”
Amira Al-Subaey, a senior who is an organizer for Tufts Student Action (TSA), an activism group that has collaborated with THL, pointed to the connection between on-campus housing shortages and growing enrollment at Tufts. “The housing crisis is getting worse because of increased enrollment and no new dorms,” she explained. “If they’re going to continue to increase enrollment, then they need to prioritize housing. They clearly haven’t done that.”
During the 2008 – 2009 school year, the total Tufts undergraduate population was 5,066 students. In the fall of 2017, it was 5,541, which amounts to a 475-student increase. Despite this bump in enrollment, CoHo was the first new student housing to be built since SoGo in 2008. When asked about the rationale behind increasing enrollment, Dean Qu and James Glaser, the Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, declined to comment.
Many students have voiced their dissatisfaction with the new system. Shortly after the announcement, THL circulated a petition stating that the new tiered pricing system is “further evidence that Tufts administration does not care about low-income students.” The petition warned that the system will create economic segregation by blocking low-income students from living in higher-tiered housing, either because of the complications of financial aid or by self-selection. Over 1,500 students, alumni, and parents have signed the petition.
Shane Woolley, a senior at Tufts who is also a TCU Senator and an organizer for THL, explained his opposition to the new system. “It’s so blatantly classist and discriminatory to kids who are here on financial aid. It sends the wrong message.” he said.
The administration, however, insists that the new system will not be detrimental to students on financial aid. Both Dean McMahon and Dean Rossi emphasized that a central part of the system is that financial aid will be readjusted so that students’ out-of-pocket payment for housing costs will not change, regardless of the housing tier they select. For example, if a student’s financial aid package requires that they contribute 40 percent of their housing costs, and they select the highest-tiered housing, the student will only pay 40 percent of the lowest-tiered housing costs. Dean McMahon suggested that students on financial aid may even be more incentivized to live on campus, as their financial aid does not apply to off-campus housing.
O’Mara Schwartz, however, was skeptical of this claim. “The basis of the system is that they’re making money off this higher-tiered housing, so I don’t buy that explanation,” he said. “They make revenue by having higher-income students paying more money. If they’re saying that they’ll house more students on financial aid, then they’ll lose more money.”
Dean Rossi acknowledged that this is a potential outcome the administration has considered, but maintained that there is no way to predict the actual result. He added that the only alternative for a tiered system is to not cover higher-tiered housing for students on financial aid.
Despite the promise that out-of-pocket rates will remain consistent, there is still anxiety regarding how the new system will affect students on financial aid. Given the fiscal reasons for the switch to tiered housing and the opaque nature of the financial aid allocation process, students are worried that if they select higher-tiered housing, they may be given less overall financial aid to account for the difference in cost. In this scenario, students would not see an increase in their out-of-pocket costs for housing. Instead, they would receive less financial aid based on the school’s changing assessment of their family’s ability to contribute.
Woolley is also concerned that this may be an issue. “[The administration] can justify it in a million ways because the system of allocating financial aid isn’t clear to anybody; it’s all behind the scenes and there’s no transparency… Students on financial aid know that it changes like the wind every year.”
Patricia Reilly, Director of Financial Aid, made a statement via e-mail in response to this apprehension. “In every step of the planning process for tiered housing, the university has built in an allowance to take into account the additional aid that will be needed to cover this new policy. The university will collect additional housing revenue as a result of this policy,” she assured.
Concerns about the new system are not just limited to students on financial aid. Nathan Foster, a 2018 alumnus, as well as a former TCU Trustee Representative and a THL organizer, commented on the matter. “It assumes that students who aren’t on financial aid are all wealthy enough that $2,000 doesn’t mean anything to them, which I don’t think is an accurate assumption,” he said. Foster also pointed out that only 35 percent of Tufts students are on financial aid, which leaves a large swath of the student body that will see an increase in their out-of-pocket costs.
Dean McMahon claims, however, that upperclassmen who are not on financial aid will not be disproportionately affected because the new pricing system lines up with the off-campus housing market. “We’ve pegged it so that it’s not going to be significantly more expensive to live here than it is to live off-campus. If I’m going to pay $950, plus utilities, plus first and last deposit, I see CoHo as a realistic alternative to off-campus living, as SoGo is.”
Dean Rossi said that in order to price the different tiers fairly, Tufts determined a range comparable to what students pay to live off-campus. According to Rossi, the school consulted with Walnut Hill Rentals, a rental company owned by Tufts; the Residential Strategies Working Group, an advisory task force of faculty, students, and community members; and “learned through our daily interaction with students.”
Based off the highest-tiered housing price of $10,219 and the eight and a half months that students are allowed to be in the dorms, THL has calculated that top-tiered housing breaks down to $1,200 a month. Dean Rossi stipulated that while this is a correct calculation, the administration expects that most top-tiered housing options will be selected by seniors, who will be able to stay until residence halls officially close on May 20. “That extends the residency period closer to nine months at a $1,135 per month rate,” he said.
Students are not convinced that either rate is at parity with off-campus prices. Woolley pointed out, “I don’t know anywhere around here where students are paying that much, and utilities aren’t $200 or $300. So that’s a misleading justification for it.”
Al-Subaey raised the issue that increased prices for on-campus housing could have an impact that extends beyond Tufts students. “It’s going to continue to push more students off-campus, which ultimately pushes long-term residents of Medford and Somerville out of their homes,” she said. Her concerns are shared by many in the community, especially in light of skyrocketing rents and increasing gentrification.
Woolley expressed similar worries. “Landlords know that there are students with wealthy parents, and they can jack up rents and capitalize on that demand,” he said.
Rocco DiRico, Director of Government & Community Relations at Tufts, countered this in a statement via-email. “[The tiered housing system] will have a positive effect on our host communities. Residents in Medford and Somerville have been asking us to invest more money in housing, and we’re doing just that. Our goal is to add 600 beds to our housing stock over five years. That will bring a good number of our students back onto campus and free up apartments off-campus for people in Medford and Somerville,” he wrote.
Another objection to the system is that it may further stratify social life at Tufts. CoHo is intended to serve not only as student housing, but also as a much-needed social space. Since 2016, when Tufts suspended and disbanded the majority of its Greek life organizations from campus, students have been outspoken in their demands that the administration provide new and equitable social spaces. Foster, who served on a TCU committee that advised on the creation of CoHo, said that the committee envisioned the new accommodations as a uniquely accessible social space because they have room for social events, but are not linked to any student group.
“We especially thought that people living there would be given a lot of support to put on social programming … But if CoHo is going to cost $2,000 more than Lewis, then it’s not so equitable,” he said.
Woolley explained that CoHo may become a social space dominated by wealthy students, because they are the most likely to select expensive housing. “Even if some people do get into CoHo on more financial aid, most of the students applying are still going to be sure of their ability to pay. It’s going to be a culture of people who have a lot of money to spend. That culture is incredibly inaccessible to people who don’t have money,” he said.
Dean McMahon said the administration does not share these concerns. “The assumption is that it will only be wealthy students who live there, but we’re trying to attend to that. If my out-of-pocket is less for SoGo or CoHo than off-campus and if what if I pay is impacting my decision, then I don’t foresee that people will avoid Coho or SoGo for financial reasons,” she countered.
Despite the administration’s insistence that tiered housing is not detrimental to students, both THL and TSA plan on continuing to oppose the policy. Woolley said that the student groups are working on alternative proposals, such as the administration prioritizing fundraising for on-campus housing, possibly by reengaging their alumni base around a new dorm. “We’re going try to show them that there’s other viable solutions,” he said. “It’s totally possible. We don’t have to do this.”
“[The administration] wants to see a revenue increase,” O’Mara Schwartz added. “The question is, how do we spread that revenue increase so that it doesn’t hurt students as much, and how do we do it in a way that won’t create stratification?”