University of Maryland, College Park students protest prospect of leaving convenient, affordable dorms

Campus discontent

April 13, 2007|By Nicole Fuller | Nicole Fuller,sun reporter

COLLEGE PARK -- Roll out of bed five minutes before that 8 a.m. class, but still get there on time. MTV, CNN and local phone service at no extra charge. Need to do some research for that term paper? The library is just steps away.

For legions of college students, campus living is a wonderful mix of independence and convenience.

A feeling of security, a sense of community and relatively low rent for an on-campus dormitory room are all incentives that students at the University of Maryland, College Park say keep them signing up for dorm space, even for their senior year.

When university officials e-mailed letters last week to more than 500 juniors informing them that they would likely not receive on-campus housing in the fall, a student revolt was born in the form of a small tent city on the campus mall.

A group of about 50 students have slept in a village of 36 tents outside McKeldin Library since Monday to protest what they say is a lack of planning on the part of officials who, students say, have done little to combat the university's perennial housing shortage. Today, the student government president will testify before a meeting of the university system's Board of Regents, hoping to give fresh voice to the issue.

"We believe that the university has a responsibility to the students it accepts to ensure that there is affordable and decent housing that is convenient to the campus," said Emma Simson, the student government president.

University officials concede more student housing is needed, but say current housing fees are not sufficient to finance new dormitories.

The university did expand student housing from 2000 to 2005, adding 2,529 beds in 13 buildings constructed through partnerships with private companies - a mechanism they hope to use in the future. A gleaming tower that houses more than 1,000 students sits adjacent to a liquor store and across the street from a McDonald's restaurant on U.S. 1, less than a mile from the main campus entrance.

On campus, the university has 8,230 beds. While enrollment is steady, an increase in students wanting to live on campus, perhaps hoping to avoid the tight housing market near the university, has exacerbated the situation. University officials couldn't estimate how many off-campus apartments would be available to students, but said they have spoken to landlords about satisfying demand. Students can also stay on the waiting list for beds.

University officials say the housing crunch is an unfortunate side effect of their success at getting more students degrees in four years.

"In all that housing, we still have a problem," said Jan Davidson, associate director of resident life. "What gives? What's up with that? The answer lies in higher retention and higher graduation rates. We have become more selective, but we have not become a larger campus. It's the fact that students are staying here and not leaving the institution in the numbers they once did."

Tad Greenleaf is one of those students. For the past three years, he has lived on campus. The tidy room in one of the school's honors dorms that he shares with a friend from his Cumberland hometown is decorated with Christmas lights and a navy-blue throw rug.

Since receiving one of the warning letters, he has begun looking for an off-campus apartment. He says his parents will help pay the higher rent.

"It's a comfort zone," Greenleaf said of campus housing. "I know for me, I haven't had to deal with leases and landlords. It's a whole new world. The nicest thing about it is, it's kind of dead center in campus, and for the money we pay, it's a good deal. For me, living on campus is a part of campus life. I'm going to have plenty of time to live in an apartment complex all of my life, so I should have the opportunity to live on campus now."

For other students, living off campus could be a hardship.

Megan Lahman transferred to College Park two years ago from a community college in her small Western Maryland hometown of Frostburg. She was lucky, she concedes, to get on-campus housing then. She relies on grants and loans to pay for her studies, along with an on-campus work-study job. Her mother, who works two jobs to pay her and her sister's college expenses, can only afford to contribute about $1,000 toward her bill each semester, she said.

A journalism student, Lahman said she worries she won't be able to afford an apartment off campus and will have to leave school, because monthly rents are sometimes $300 or more higher than the fees she pays for the dorm room she shares in Montgomery Hall. On-campus housing costs about $5,000 per academic year.

"I feel like I'm being denied my education because of my socioeconomic status," Lahman said. "Even if I got a room that was a box, I'd be happy. I know that [Gov. Martin] O'Malley and [Lt. Gov. Anthony] Brown are all about making college affordable for all students in Maryland, and now I'm feeling like I wish they would hurry up with their initiatives."

And the thought of moving off campus and navigating the neighborhoods frightens her because of area crime, she said.

"I love the city, but I don't know if I have those kind of survival skills," Lahman said.

Students' parents are also upset. Richard Morris of Lutherville, a Maryland alumnus, remembers fondly that he roomed on campus in 1975 and `76 with the men's basketball team. His son, Alex Morris, who will be a senior next year, was one of the students turned down for campus housing next year. A member of the drum line of the school's marching band, he had planned to live with some of his bandmates next year.

"I'm more worried about what it will do to his school spirit," Richard Morris said. "This is a kid who shaved his hair off and painted his face red during the Terrapin games."

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