The day I was accepted into Penn remains one of the most exciting days of my life: the culmination of years of work aimed at getting an exchange offer at one of the best schools in the United States and, indeed, the world. But while the thrill of coming here was incredible, the sobering financial reality of studying here quickly began to set in. I was soon having to explain to my parents that unlike my friends going to other US schools, who could live in private accommodation, I had no choice but to pay almost $12,000 (about $1300 a month) for Penn housing. The average rent at home sits at less than half of that. And what was worse, there was a chance I’d have to share a bedroom, something that students rarely have to do in the UK.
Penn’s housing system requires that all first-year, sophomore, transfer, and exchange students live on campus, while other students are given the option to stay or leave. While Penn’s website suggests an open choice of college house, the reality is that rooms are allocated via a lottery in which students are randomly given a time slot to choose rooms. The living situation of literally thousands of students is left up to pure chance, leaving many of them dissatisfied and miserable. Now, were all of Penn’s living locations of roughly equal quality, this system could at least be argued to be equitable. The reality, though, is that some lucky students live in luxurious, brand-new housing while others live in buildings which are frankly run-down and outdated.
As for me, my chances at this lottery turned out to be even worse than I’d imagined. Exchange students don’t even get to apply for rooms until June, many months after full-time students choose theirs. The result was that we were left with the rooms that nobody else wanted. So though I had obviously put the then-called New College House West as my top choice in the hopes of getting my own bedroom, I ended up in a tiny, two-person, shared-bedroom apartment in Rodin.
While Rodin was average but tolerable, it wasn’t until I visited some of my friends’ apartments in the newly-named Gutmann that I truly understood the extent to which I was being ripped off. They were living in a beautiful, brand-new building with single bedrooms, spacious living areas, study rooms, and an exercise suite to boot; meanwhile, my shared room barely had space to breathe in, never mind any semblance of privacy, and my shower took about a minute to heat up every morning.
My experience, though, was far from unique and certainly not the worst: recent deteriorations in Penn housing have only served to demonstrate and exacerbate how great its inequalities are. In just the past few weeks, there have been reports of a huge increase of rodent sightings in KCECH and of several residents of Harrison having to vacate their rooms entirely due to extensive flooding; the Quad, meanwhile, has long been infested with mould. In the same time period, Gutmann had a lavish official opening ceremony attended by its ex-President namesake, in which she announced that every single resident of the new house would be gifted a free sweater—from Patagonia, no less—with the building’s name embroidered on the sleeve. Residents of other college houses are rewarded for their perseverance in seriously adverse conditions with printed t-shirts as house merch. The staggering contrast would be hilarious if it weren’t so unjust.
The worst part of all of this, though, is that those living outside of Gutmann, most of whom are given no alternative to living on campus and got their rooms through a random lottery, have to pay the exact same rent price for what is an unequivocally far worse experience. While I’ve been lucky enough to move to Gutmann this semester, I’ve seen the same bewilderment I once felt on the faces of incoming exchange students when they walked into my room for the first time, questioning how on earth I’d managed to score a place there. After all, if Penn could afford to give me such luxury, why weren’t they receiving the same treatment for the same price?
It is clear that there is a serious inequity here that results in many students feeling rightfully screwed over. The prognosis is simple: Penn cannot continue to force their students to pay extremely high rent prices for clearly inadequate facilities without any sort of opportunity to move off-campus. Either lower the rent for those in the clearly worse accommodations–and no, that doesn’t mean raising prices by 20% for nicer accommodations, as they did with the Radian (see here)–or allow students to move off-campus.
Failing to do either is a blatant abuse of monopoly power which demonstrates both greed and a serious disregard for their students’ wellbeing. For one of the world’s best economics and business schools, which claims to be a place which cares about its community, you’d think they’d be above such inconsiderate inefficiency. So while I love my new fleece, putting it on only serves as a reminder of the undeserved privilege I receive for winning Penn’s housing lottery, and the unfair treatment the “losers” have to face.