The Off-Campus Lottery: An Annual Disappointment

The opportunity to go from living in the middle of a busy city to a quiet dorm building is one of the reasons I came to Colgate, as is the case for many Colgate students; our campus and the village of Hamilton, N.Y. offer the chance to spend four years in an environment very different from that in which many grew up. Even more special is the residential experience Colgate promises, beginning on the hill and slowly moving downhill over the course of four years, with each year promising more independence as students creep closer to embracing adulthood and venturing off into the world on their own. 

The opportunity to live off campus during senior year is one that I not only looked forward to for the last three years, but is one thing that set Colgate apart from the beginning of my college search. I remember deciding to apply to Colgate over another university for many reasons, one of which being the other’s four-year on-campus housing requirement that meant four years of living in dorms with a roommate. Colgate, on the other hand, offered the chance to live in a house or apartment in the village as a senior. Contrary to the twin beds of my first three years at Colgate in East Hall and townhouses, I am fortunate enough to spend my senior year in an apartment with three close friends and a space entirely to myself.

Living in the village has been incredible, and one of my favorite parts of my college experience. Everything I could possibly need is within a 10 minute walk; I have gotten to know my local businesses’ owners and other neighbors, and I even know the names of several dogs I come across on daily walks. I can now confirm that this community experience is exactly what I craved during my first three years on those days when the uphill or townhouse quads felt a bit too quiet for me. Living off campus has made me feel like I’m part of a real community – one composed not just of fellow students but of all sorts of people of all ages and walks of life. It feels like a comfortable middle ground between the liberal arts residential experience and whatever is in store for me after I graduate – a necessary taste of the independence I will soon have once I depart from the safety of the Colgate bubble.

Yet things could have been very different. I was not immediately granted permission to live off campus, and spent an agonizing two and a half months in the 15th spot on the waitlist. I spent that time simultaneously holding out hope and preparing myself to mourn the picture I’d painted for a senior year in the village. I am incredibly lucky to have made it off the waitlist, and even more fortunate to have had the means to secure a lease off campus. But I am sympathetic to those in a similar spot who were not as lucky with the lottery as I was.

I am also familiar with the angst expressed by local landlords in regard to this off-campus lottery process. I spent a few days conducting interviews for a story that didn’t come to fruition, but what I did learn was that many landlords feel as though they are kept in the dark by Residential Life’s inconsistent and opaque process for carrying out this lottery. They were unwilling to go on the record about this matter, however, largely due to the tenuous and regularly uncertain nature of the relationship between Residential Life and local landlords, as they explained it to me. Many expressed to me that each year, they hold their breath as they wait to see if they’ll be able to fill their leases, a source of income on which many depend. This uncertainty and unease is only exacerbated by a market so competitive that many students sign leases in the fall of their sophomore year, and yet so tenuous that many are later required to forfeit their leases after being unsuccessful in the lottery.

This past December, as is the case with every year I remember at Colgate, the day the lottery was released was a day marked by angst, frustration and even tears across the junior class. Hopes of living in the village were shattered for many, and I repeatedly heard people voice the sense that the Colgate experience they’d always envisioned would no longer be possible. How can it be that year after year, a collective feeling of despair and disappointment comes over much of the junior class, and yet year after year, no changes are made in response to this backlash? 

From what I understand, the off-campus lottery in its current formulation attempts to set up the most equitable system possible, so that students with more financial means to secure leases are not at an advantage that prevents those with less financial means from being able to secure a lease. But it does not seem like the effort is successful to this end. Landlords are still signing leases with sophomores, and people with the ability to pay double to live off campus while paying for an empty on-campus apartment are still able to do so. Further, the competitiveness of this system in its current form means that people are paying exorbitant rates for a room worth, in my case, probably around a third of what I actually pay. Landlords only have so many tenants when Colgate limits the amount of seniors who get to live off campus to the very small number they do – a number so small that landlords have not all been able to fill their properties, a few admitted to me in my series of interviews. 

How can this be fixed? Year after year, not every student who wishes to live off campus is able to do so. Those who aren’t able to secure off campus housing through the lottery, but wanted to, are only able to if they’re willing to pay what most consider to be an extraordinary amount of money – a state of affairs that seems inconsistent with the current system’s aim of making the process as equal of a playing field as possible. I don’t have an answer for how it can be improved in a way that doesn’t devolve into an even further state of inequality. At a school as economically diverse – and economically segregated – as Colgate, it might not be easy to do, but in its current state it appears to only exacerbate these problems. But what I do know is that if Colgate wants to stay true to the positive four-year residential experience it promises, something needs to change.