When Students Pay for Convenience

Colleges confront swapping schemes in housing and course registration.
April 11, 2008

It's not exactly cheating. More like crafty dealing, says Alicia Dugas, Kenyon College's assistant dean of students for housing and residential life. Whatever you call paying money for a desirable residence hall lottery number, Dugas and many students at Kenyon College want the practice to end.

Legislation introduced by Kenyon students and passed this week by the student body disallows beginning-of-the-term room switches that are often necessary to complete such transactions. Dugas said the vote is a sign of the widespread concern about an underground market that demands as much as $500 for a favorable housing number.

“It sets up a dichotomy between haves and have nots," she said. "Students are paying a lot of money to get into the nicest housing units, and some are feeling a lot of pressure to sell their numbers to afford tuition and things for the year."

Kenyon is hardly the only college confronting swapping schemes that can involve money and mass messaging. At the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, students often send out e-mail blasts to see if classmates would be willing to switch into 8:30 a.m. classes.

Michigan automatically assigns students to required courses as a way of assuring diverse sections of students, said Bernie DeGroat, a university spokesman. So while a student can't avoid being assigned to an early class, if she can find someone to take her place, she's allowed to switch.

John Lu, a Michigan student, said it's common for dozens of e-mails to come per day around the time when those classes are assigned. He said students who don't want to deal with the early wake-up time typically solicit others who are outside of their section.

"It can be frustrating," he said. "The administration usually steps in and writes an e-mail asking people to stop spamming each other. It dies off, but then someone else starts the process again."

Added DeGroat: "We try not to go overboard with e-mails, otherwise our messages also become like spam."

Lu said in most cases he doesn't think students are offering each other money, but rather looking for favors. An online system where students can post a message looking to swap classes without sending the query to everyone is an alternative. But DeGroat said the business school would prefer that switching not happen in the first place.

Kenyon has made it more difficult for students to contact their classmates who drew prized numbers in the housing lottery by changing the way that those numbers are revealed. In past years, students could find full names and the lottery numbers of everyone participating in the drawing on doors of the housing office and in several dorms.

Once the information was posted, students furiously began e-mailing those with the best numbers and making offers. Dugas said she wanted to put an end to that practice, and this year her office sent the numbers out through e-mail.

Dugas went to a student housing committee earlier this year and asked for thoughts about how to further clean up the system. That set into motion a series of conversations among student groups ending with the drafting of the housing legislation that prevents students from switching rooms prior to October 1 without first meeting with and receiving consent from a residence life official.

That change makes it so that a student who bought a lottery number and wrote down intentions of living with the seller would actually have to live with that student for the first two months until the plan of having his friend move in could come to fruition.

Students can switch rooms within an apartment or suite anytime but have to notify the office before it occurs. Any student not living in his or her assigned space before October 1, including those living off campus without permission, will under the new regulations be given a week to return to their assigned room before that student incurs penalties. Dugas expects that delaying a switch date will dissuade many students from going to the trouble of buying numbers.

"It's been 'let's make a deal,' " Dugas said. "Some people wanted to be a part of it but some preferred to stay out of it. When you have 20 people approaching you it's difficult to remain on the sideline."


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