Towson University to hold housing lottery; Higher enrollment leads to a campus first


When it comes to on-campus housing, Towson University students are learning a hard lesson in economics: Supply doesn't always equal demand.

Unable to cram the more than 3,400 students who want on-campus housing into the available beds -- and expecting an enrollment boom -- the university has started the first housing lottery in its 133-year history, hoping to guarantee beds for incoming freshmen and newer students.

First-come, first-served didn't seem quite fair to freshmen, campus officials reasoned. Purchasing nearby apartment complexes for student housing sent noise-fearing neighbors into apoplectic fits. And housing waiting lists were a euphemism for "don't hold your breath."

Students -- who had until Friday to sign up for the lottery and who will find out March 1 if they get an on-campus spot -- take a far different view.

"It's garbage," said Justin Dellinger, 20, who lives in the school's coveted Towson Run Apartments, a dormitory where mostly upperclassmen reside. "I'm a junior. I should have priority. It's unfair."

Weary campus officials say they can sympathize, but that's the other lesson to learn: Life isn't always fair.

"I don't know if the person's name started with a Z or not, but one caller asked me, 'Will you do it alphabetically?' " said Jerry Dieringer, Towson's director of housing and residence life who fields the daily calls for lottery anxiety.

"I know the students aren't exactly happy about it," Dieringer added. "It's the element of the unknown, the idea of not knowing, that bothers them."

Get over it, campus officials say.

Towson University, which has housing for 3,300 students each year, expects a burst in enrollment in the next few years that could take student numbers from 16,000 to more than 20,000 -- an increase that mirrors growth at colleges and universities nationwide.

That also means a rise in on-campus housing demands across the country, according to the Association of College and University Housing Officers International.

"More and more research is coming out that there are real benefits to living on campus in terms of retention, graduation rates and satisfaction," said Gary J. Schwarzmueller, the association's executive director. "So people are scrambling to find as many ways to house students as they can.

"In most cases, you can't make the pie bigger," he added. "So you just have to carve up the pie differently."

Georgia Tech has used a lottery system for the past two decades. Wake Forest University holds lotteries for single rooms. Some colleges base housing on grade point averages, while others work with local businesses to build new campus housing.

The University of Maryland, College Park gives priority to residents who have lived on campus the longest, and freshmen are next in line.

The University of Maryland, Baltimore County is building a dormitory for the 300 to 400 students usually on the waiting list.

The demand for on-campus housing is driven by more than the convenience of rolling out of bed 15 minutes before an 8 a.m. class or avoiding parking hassles.

Gone are the days of dormitory rooms with pastel-colored concrete walls, metal bunk beds and old chairs.

Schools like Towson offer air conditioning, cable, ultra-high-speed Internet access, voice mail, microwave ovens, refrigerators, kitchens and a cafeteria if students aren't up to playing chef.

For that just-like-home-but-without-the-parents lifestyle, Towson students pay $3,100 a year to board. No wonder that many students say they're not keen about taking the gamble.

"I'm planning to live with two of my friends next year," said Julie Kowalewski, 19, a sophomore who is living with seven women in a Towson Run four-bedroom apartment. "I don't know what we're going to do if one of us doesn't win the lottery. We're thinking about putting a deposit down on Valley View. It's one of the closest apartments near here if you don't have a car."

Maura Shey and Christy Liptak, two of her roommates, have decided to move on. They're renting an apartment at The Colony on Kenilworth Drive in the fall.

"I think a lot of people are going to get scared off campus," said Liptak, 21. "You need to know you have a place to live. Where we're living next year should be the last thing we're worried about, what with the exams, papers and classes we're stressing about right now."

Shey, 22, agreed and added, "That's why we're moving. It's so ridiculous. What about the people who can't afford to live off campus? People who don't have cars? They're basically kicking us out."

Not exactly, school officials say.

Towson notified students last month that anyone interested in returning to campus housing had to file a notice of intent by Friday.

Once those notices are returned, students living on campus for four or more semesters are plugged into a computer program, which randomly assigns them a lottery number.

Students with the lowest lottery numbers will be the first to get a bed.

The school will mail winners a housing contract March 1. Despite fears, most students will receive a room.

"In fact, we expect the majority will get housing," Dieringer said. "We're not kicking everyone off like everyone thinks. Ideally, we'd like to have housing for everybody. But once housing is in greater demand than you have in supply, you have to make choices. Tough choices."

Lottery losers can look on the bright side: The university helps students find off-campus housing.

Pub Date: 2/16/99

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