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Columns

Toward a Better Housing System

Change is not unthinkable

By Aaron J. Miller

I live in a small Quad double. I have a hallway bathroom, no common room, and a thirteen-minute walk every time I need to get to the Yard.

My friend, also a sophomore, lives in DeWolfe. His single is the size of my double. It’s right off of a spacious common room, with a private bathroom and a full-kitchen. (Not to mention air-conditioning.)

This year the room and board section of our term bills will both read $15,381. This dichotomy is representative of Harvard’s larger housing system.

The University randomizes freshmen into one of twelve Houses each spring. Rooming quality, location, and House resources are skewed—a reality made even more salient by the series of major renovations that have thus far been limited to River Houses. But Harvard stands by the system for fear of a worse one, like those practiced in the past.

Through the 1990s, students had a choice of which House they would join—initially, through a set of interviews with the House masters, and later, through a process in which students numbered their House preferences one through twelve and were accordingly placed.

But some began to complain about self-segregation among students.

“One House had a great predominance of natural-science concentrators,” Leverett House Master John Dowling described, “Another had most of the gay and lesbian students, and one had an excess of students from prep schools. There have been Houses which had large black populations relative to the College population.”

The ensuing debate led to the 1996 implementation of today’s system: total randomization. And administrators have since celebrated the consequent diversity in the Houses.

“You have to get a wider web of people connecting in the houses,” co-Master of Cabot House Rakesh Khurana told Harvard Magazine in 2013. “You don’t want students with identical interests or backgrounds just hanging out with each other.”

But the opportunity cost of randomization is a higher degree of dissatisfaction with rooming. Students are put in the Quad when they want to be by the river. And students are put in small Houses when they wanted to be in a larger House. When a friend told me on Housing Day that he had wanted the Quad but had gotten Dunster, I admittedly cringed.

Granted, most would probably agree that Harvard administrators largely got it right. The diversity in the Houses is a special component of the Harvard experience.

But there is a way to preserve a degree of students’ preferences in the housing system while maintaining this diversity.

My suggestion is that the University allow blocking groups to list their House preferences one through twelve, as under the past system. Then, much the same as the process for handpicking freshmen for each Yard dorm, House masters would handpick blocking groups with knowledge of their preferences, while ensuring diversity in each House.

The system wouldn’t be perfect. After all, no one is going to enter the process wanting my double in the Quad. It would still entail winners and losers. And the same Houses would surely gravitate to the top of most blocking groups’ lists.

However, this partial preference system would at least minimize the number of students dissatisfied with their House assignment. It wouldn’t make everybody a winner of the system, but it would make a lot more winners and lot fewer losers. There is no reason that a freshman who wants a Quad House should be placed in Adams House, provided that equal levels of diversity are maintained.

It would also improve levels of satisfaction by enfranchising students in the process to a degree. A 1994 Crimson op-ed described the lottery system as an “objectification of students” that treats students "as random objects of varying shapes, sizes and colors which must be evenly distributed among houses.”

Harvard’s housing system might seem too entrenched to change. Administrators have belabored the House system’s centrality to the college experience too many times to start playing with it.

But in reality, the Housing system that we know today is a product of change over the last thirty years. It’s not unthinkable that with the right line of innovative thinking and the communication of students’ voices that it could change again.

Aaron J. Miller ’18, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Currier House.

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