Monday, October 18, 2021

No More Room at the Inn: Yale-NUS’s Looming Housing Crisis

Michael Sagna
Michael Sagna, ‘23, is a GA major in Cendana. Bursting with unsolicited opinions, he passes his time playing volleyball (badly), eating rambutan alone in his room, and perfecting his shakshuka recipe.

Story | Michael Sagna, Managing Editor

Photo | Ishmam Ahmed

Yale-NUS College was designed to be a fully residential college where students are required to stay on campus for four years. To accommodate around 250 students in each of four classes, the college’s architects designed a campus with 1,001 rooms.

Seems intuitive, right? Wrong.

In the past few years, Yale-NUS was able to house students and give them a high degree of flexibility, but the ongoing pandemic has put extra stress on the housing supply. In order to resume in-person classes, starting last semester the college has had to maintain a minimum number of vacant suites for isolation of suspected COVID-19 cases, as per government regulations.

Hence, to allow as many students to attend in-person classes as possible, the college has requested local students to volunteer to live off campus and commute to school instead.

What the architects of Yale-NUS failed to account for is the 5% of students who, according to Dave Stanfield, Dean of Students, do not graduate within the standard time frame of eight semesters within a four-year period. Delayed graduation may occur for a variety of reasons: students may fail or underload classes and have to make up for them, or a Leave of Absence (LOA) due to family, health, or professional reasons.

In an interview with The Octant, Mr. Stanfield explained, “Housing continues to be a challenge because we have more students that want rooms than we have rooms, and of course we have a graduation requirement that students must live on campus for eight semesters. Most importantly, insofar as possible, we want students to have the opportunity to live on campus because the residential experience is an important aspect of the Yale-NUS education.”

However, Mr. Stanfield continued, “When [COVID-19] is no longer an issue, demand will still exceed supply because we have 1,001 rooms, and the College will always have more than 1,000 students at any given moment since a sizable number of students do not graduate in four years primarily due to LOAs. This issue further compounds each semester.”

Another reason for the persistent housing shortage is that students are empowered to decide their suitemates, and they even have the freedom to opt for gender-neutral suites regardless of whether they identify as non-binary. This leads to vacancies in suites when gender preferences cannot be matched.

Mr. Stanfield went on to speak about how the housing allocation process has been somewhat inefficient.

“Until now we’ve had the luxury of giving students a lot of choice and say in their housing allocations, but it’s at the expense of efficiency in terms of maximizing room occupancy. An unequal gender distribution within the student population, coupled with a disproportionate number [of] vacancies in single-gender and mixed-gender suites, pose complications for incoming housing allocations. Ultimately, [this] all leads to vacant rooms that become very hard to fill.”

Mr. Stanfield was clear in his conviction that this system was unsustainable, and that it would have to change from as soon as next year.

“We’re already projecting that housing demand is going to be an issue for [the] next academic year. And so, we’re going to concentrate this semester on getting input from students and coming up with a reasonable policy modification and consider other creative solutions… What we’re trying to accomplish is very difficult given how much students care about suite arrangements. We will need to make a policy revision that allows us to house as many students on campus as possible while ensuring healthy suite dynamics.”

Cory Owen, Associate Dean of Students, who was also present at the meeting, praised Yale-NUS for its flexibility and understanding in how late it grants LOAs, whilst also noting its drawbacks. “Yale-NUS’s flexibility is one that I have never seen at any institution before. It’s lovely and it’s wonderful, but it’s contributing to some of the complications on the administrative side.”

To address this housing shortage, all students were initially offered a residential waiver, which would waive the campus housing requirement for one semester. When there was a shortage of volunteers, however, the college referred to the general housing priority order list, which The Octant was provided with by the Dean of Students Office.

The housing priority is as follows, with the highest-priority students first:

  1. All Yale-NUS students in their first four years of study since matriculation,
  2. International exchange students,
  3. Local super seniors,*
  4. Double Degree Program (DDP) Law fifth-year students,
  5. Local visiting students.

*Super seniors are defined as students who matriculated more than four years ago, excluding students who took an LOA due to foreign military service requirements (e.g. Korean students who take LOAs to fulfil their mandatory military service are not counted as super seniors).

Within super seniors, there is also a distinction made between internationals and locals, as well as the reasons for which the student took an LOA. This priority list is as follows: 

  1. International super seniors,
  2. Local super seniors.
    1. Medical-related LOAs (mental & physical health)​
    2. Unanticipated LOAs (e.g. cancelled study abroad midway through a semester);
    3. Voluntary LOAs (internships, etc.)​

Daniel Wong ‘21, a final-year DDP student who was asked to live off campus this semester, discussed his experience living at home this semester. “I’m completely fine with my current situation given my living situation at home and the fact that I do not have a lot of in-person Yale-NUS classes… But for someone involved with school activities or who has a lot of Yale-NUS classes, it would be a lot more convenient to be in school.”

In an unprecedented move, Mr. Stanfield also explored the possibility of alternative housing arrangements for lower-priority Yale-NUS students in residential colleges in University Town (UTown). “NUS has indicated a willingness to help with our problem. Housing Yale-NUS students in UTown would be an ideal solution. It is more likely that we’ll be able to acquire some rooms in UTown in a non-COVID-19 semester.”

Shaf Sukkoor ‘21, a local senior who took a one-year leave of absence, also falls at the bottom of the housing priority list, and is therefore living at home this semester. “I personally wouldn’t opt for UTown housing, as the entire reason I would want to stay on campus is due to the immediate proximity to friends. Having said this, I am also very lucky to be staying close enough to school that commuting isn’t that much of a hassle, and my home environment is safe, so that isn’t a concern for me either.”

However, any remedies will come at the cost of students’ college experience. As Sukkoor explained, “Without the residential experience, community building would have been infinitely more difficult and I feel like the divide between international and local students would be even wider.”

“I would say that [residential living] is absolutely crucial to the Yale-NUS experience,” Sukkoor added.

In the coming semesters, Yale-NUS will have to make difficult decisions about its housing, deciding between efficiency, student choice, and college experience. It remains to be seen how the impending housing crisis, which has had to be confronted for the first time this academic year, will be solved.

While the Admissions website still paints an idealistic picture of Yale-NUS as a “community of living and learning,” the question remains: how do we build “intimate nested communities for every student to call home,” when access to “the intimate yet intercultural setting” is limited for some?

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