It has been just over a year since Macalester acquired the vacant lot behind the Cultural House at 1661 Grand Ave. After 30 years of attempting to purchase the property, which was condemned and razed in 2016, Macalester successfully closed the deal in January 2018. Thus far, the college has used the lot for little other than parking during the construction of the new theater building. But Macalester has grander plans for the property.
This fall, the Strategic Planning and Analysis Committee (SPA)—which formed in 2017 to monitor the implementation of the college’s Strategic Plan—conducted a study of on-campus housing. The SPA released a report titled “More Than Just Beds: Exploring the Dynamics of Campus Residency,” with research on a potential third year residency requirement and the development plans for 1661 Grand Ave.
On Nov. 25, 2018, the SPA administered a student survey to “understand what factors contribute to students’ housing decisions and, with this in mind, how current and future on-campus housing might be designed to meet student need, interest, and demand.”
Since the 1960s, the college has maintained a two-year on-campus residency requirement. This is by no means the norm. Overall, about 58 percent of Macalester’s population lives on-campus while its 40 peer schools house a median of 95 percent of students.
For the most part, Macalester upperclassmen prefer to live off-campus. Roughly two-thirds of juniors and three-fourths of seniors live off-campus every year, and SPA concluded that most students are strongly opposed to adding a third year residency requirement.
Assistant Dean for Residential Life Coco Du believes that some of the urge to move off campus comes from a natural desire for independence.
“In terms of Macalester students, we have a student population that is highly engaged,” Du said. “We have a student population who is eager to give back to the community and we are eager to explore different options and give back to community.
“As a young adult, an emerging adult, you want a taste of your independence at some point,” she continued.
Not to mention that with the majority of Mac’s upperclassmen moving off-campus, there can be a social pressure to follow along.
“Students connect with their peers and want to go off campus together with their social group,” Du said. “Sometimes peers’ influence can be even more impactful than other influences in your life. You want to do what your friends are doing.”
Above all, however, SPA’s survey found that most respondents chose to move off-campus because the cost of living at Macalester is significantly higher than that of paying rent and buying groceries.
Combined, Room and Board costs Macalester students $12,156 each school year. Meanwhile, SPA’s survey found that, off campus, students spend about $550 on rent and $194 on food every month—saving an estimated $776 each month compared to their on-campus counterparts.
For prospective students and their families, however, the lack of four-year guaranteed housing remains a concern.
“I think there’s a lot of parents of students who are thinking of coming here who would like to know that there’s housing available all the way through the third year and into the fourth,” Vice President of Administration and Finance David Wheaton said. “I’m not always sure whether the view on this is the same between students and their parents.”
Per the SPA’s survey, this concern is especially salient among students of color and first generation college students and their families.
“There is evidence from research done by a consulting firm that some prospective students, particularly first generation students and students of color, feel that there’s a certain amount of anxiety involved in coming to a place where housing is not guaranteed,” geography professor and SPA Chair William Moseley said.
“So if we could guarantee more housing, not necessarily four years but maybe three years, maybe we would get a more diverse group of students who would feel comfortable coming here.”
Clay Kingsbury, a junior at Carleton College, lives in a single room on Carleton’s campus. He says that local infrastructure limits Carleton Residential Life from allowing students to live off-campus. Only 100 randomly-selected seniors are allowed to make the move into the surrounding neighborhood every year.
According to Kingsbury, however, Carleton students are also concerned about the prohibitive cost of on-campus housing.
“I know a few of my peers have complained that… they would much rather live off-campus because it would probably be cheaper to pay rent than have to pay for room and board, specifically being on the meal plan,” Kingsbury said. “I think for some students that might be an obstacle… Personally, that hasn’t been an issue for me, but I know a few other first-generation college students have been frustrated with that.”
Despite the cost burden, some Macalester upperclassmen continue to live on-campus. Ryan Leopold ’20 currently lives in Kirk Hall. Leopold moved in to Kirk in January after studying abroad in the Fall 2018 term.
“It just seemed like the easiest choice for me,” Leopold said. “I knew I would be studying away in the fall and I just kind of wanted to figure out my living situation in the easiest possible way so I didn’t have to stress about that while I am overseas.”
But for every dollar students save moving into the neighborhood and out of the dorms, the college loses money.
It is likely that in order to build the residences at 1661 Grand Ave., the college would have to implement a third year requirement to keep students on campus.
“I think whenever colleges decide to add housing, in a sense their big fear is that students won’t want to live there,” Wheaton said. “If you invest both in the physical structure and in the programming, if it then goes unused that’s really expensive.”
The relationship between implementing a third year requirement and building a new dorm is, to some extent, codependent: in order to do the one, you have to do the other.
Keeping that in mind, SPA considered the ways it could tailor the new residence to the needs of juniors. For example, its survey found that “students rank access to kitchens (in order to move off the meal plan) as the most important design feature for new housing.”
“We have a very diverse learning community—food is part of culture,” Du said. “Students want to be able to cook food that is familiar and representative of their own home, their culture. We all have our own home recipes where, when we’re able to cook together and eat the food that really reflects who we are, we feel really nourished and comfortable in that.”
The report largely envisions the new residence as serving as a bridge between life at Macalester and life after. It would likely be transitional apartment-style housing with retail on the first floor—similar to the units at Grand Cambridge Apartments.
The report came to no conclusive recommendation, but the committee hopes the findings will spark further discussion and action. In the near future, members of the senior staff are looking to develop a comprehensive plan for the future of on-campus housing.
“Our plan is, as a next step, to bring in a consultant to help us develop a strategic plan for all student housing at Macalester,” Macalester President Brian Rosenberg wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “We don’t want to develop that one property without a sense of our goals for housing overall.”