Empty rooms strain finances

By Matt Day

A year after more than 100 empty beds in dorms left Macalester with a $200,000 dollar hole to fill, Associate Dean of Students Jim Hoppe confirmed this week that the college will face similar strain this year. The current number of vacancies in on-campus housing stands at 117.

“We had to spend money down the line to cover for last year,” Hoppe said of the vacancies of spring 2006. Though no specific cost has been applied to this year’s housing situation, the college will be forced again to make adjustments to cover for the shortfall.

An increase in room fees to balance the budget is unlikely. Room fees increased by $124 for the current academic year due to unrelated increases in operating costs.

Current housing rates are already included in some students’ rationale to leave campus.

“Its not very competitive,” Tom Mahle ’09 said.

Dennis Olsen ’09, who plans to live off campus, agrees. “Its really expensive when you compare rates at Mac to the surrounding area.”

With more students living on campus last fall than the previous year, Res Life was hopeful that there would be fewer vacancies this spring.

“Vacancies are a relatively new phenomenon,” Hoppe said. He said that shortages rather than vacancies were common at Mac until an unusually large shortage a few years ago sent a higher percentage of upperclassmen off campus.

Following the shortage-induced exodus, the number of empty beds was compounded by a record number of students studying abroad in spring 2006.

Though Macalester’s 1309-bed housing system is designed to accommodate off-campus living and programs, spring study abroad has taken a toll on the occupancy rate the last two years.

The overwhelming amount of study abroad candidates last year encouraged the Macalester community to try to balance study abroad applications between fall and spring. Macalester approved 130 students to study abroad during last fall.

With fewer students studying abroad this semester than the same time last year, the balance was a positive indicator for vacancy rates.

In a separate effort to fill last spring’s empty beds, Res Life last year began a campaign to advertise the benefits of staying in dorms.

Res Life, frequently perceived as an immobile and unchanging part of campus life, is also undertaking examinations of its policy to create an environment that is “more attractive” to students.

“They tried to make it simpler,” Hoppe said, citing inefficiencies in the housing system such as a 12-page list of rules for upperclassmen room draw.

Beyond the simple streamlining of the room draw system, changes including an examination of the role of residence advisors and student involvement in Res Life policy are on the drawing board.

The Café Mac meal plan is another element that frequently pushes students off campus.

“I like the flex idea,” Livia Martini ’10 said, “but flex doesn’t add up to what you should be saving.”

Under the current agreement with contractor Bon Appétit, all students living on campus are required to be on a Café Mac meal plan.

“Its really expensive,” Helena Swanson-Nystrom ’10 said. “In reality, people don’t eat as much as they’re charged for.”

In response to students’ comments, the meal plan is undergoing discussions that could make it more flexible.

“They’ve [Bon Appétit] been really willing to be creative,” Hoppe said. Among the proposed options for meal plan variations are plans with more flex dollars, all-flex plans, and different hours of operation at facilities such as the Atrium Market.