Rice University Residential College Guarantee: Not All Students Get What They Pay For

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Note to incoming Rice University undergrads (and their parents) expecting the full "residential college" experience: Be sure to read everything that you get on Rice letterhead.

One of the universities' primary selling points is its residential college system, which, according to its website, is "fundamental to the distinctiveness and success of the Rice undergraduate experience." But that experience isn't guaranteed to everyone who agrees to the $45,000-plus per year price tag. At least, not for the duration of their time at Rice.

In a letter dated July 10, 2010 -- more than two months after the May 1 student commitment date -- parents of incoming Rice students were contacted by the "Master(s)" of the respective residential college where his or her son or daughter were assigned.

In the letter obtained by Hair Balls, the authors were the Masters of the Marian and Speros P. Martel College, Ms. Beata Loch and Mr. Ted Loch-Temzelides. They introduced themselves, mentioning that they live in a red brick house (which doesn't say much since the entire campus uses red brick) and have two kids. This info came by the second paragraph. It seemed like another piece of mail fit for the recycle bin.

(If you haven't gone through the pre-college experience of applying and accepting, part of the process is being inundated with almost daily pieces of mail talking about financial aid, classes, campus opportunities and what to expect when you're expecting ... debt. Much of it is repetitive, mundane and usually worthy of a quick scan.)

For parents motivated to read into the fifth paragraph (of seven), there was a shocking bit of information:

"We want to bring to your attention an issue regarding housing at Martel College and Rice University in general. Students are guaranteed on-campus housing for their freshman year, but there is not sufficient housing to guarantee on-campus housing to every student for all four years. At Martel, a Room-Draw Committee conducts a lottery each spring to determine which students (beyond freshman) can live on campus the following year. These rules are outlined in the Martel Constitution, a copy of which your daughter will receive soon."

The "lottery" is a process unique within each college which helps to determine who stays and who goes. There are ways around the lottery, including being involved in the colleges' student government or being a member of a Rice athletic team.

The residential college system originated at Oxford and Cambridge University in the United Kingdom. Students and administrators at Rice liken the colleges to the "house system" used in the Harry Potter series. Rice is one of 30 colleges and universities in the U.S. that use the system, a list that includes Harvard, Yale, MIT, Northwestern and USC (both of them, Southern California and South Carolina).

When Hair Balls contacted the Dean of Students office, a university representative indicated that the potential experience-damning happening was something "not advertised" by the school, but that it was nothing new. She went on to indicate that it wasn't until a students' sophomore or junior year that he or she would be "asked to leave."

In an emailed statement provided to Hair Balls two days later, B.J. Almond, from the Office of Public Affairs, said that the potential pitfall of the residential college situation is "mentioned to prospective students and their parents during presentations when they visit campus, and student tour guides are often asked about it and explain the lottery system used by the residential colleges."

According to one current student, Bryan Hodge, a fifth-year senior who used to conduct campus tours, he was only familiar with the residential college situation because he had a sibling who had previously attended. "I can understand how it could be frustrating," said Hodge, who was fortunate to survive the "bump" process and live on campus in Brown College all four years. "But usually by junior and senior year students want to live off campus, so it's not a big deal." Hodge mentioned that during his tours, he usually made a point of mentioning that housing wasn't guaranteed all four years.

Almond credited the bumping of students to overcrowding problems in the various colleges. He directed Hair Balls to a paragraph in the student handbook which mentions that "the University only has the capacity to house about 70 percent of its students." He added a correction to that figure, that the school currently has room for 84 percent of the population because two new residential buildings were added, but that the figure will drop to "about 75 percent" as the school expands its undergraduate population.

Over on the east side of Highway 288, the University of Houston housing situation is notably different. For the 29,000-plus undergraduates, there are only about 4,800 beds (including 1,000 from the soon to be opened Cougar Village) to accommodate, according to Hiral Patel, a student worker in Residential Life & Housing. The majority of students choose not to live on the commuter-dominated campus.

Unlike at UH, the housing experience at Rice is supposed to influence and add to the molding of the brilliant minds. Hard for that to happen when you're living a mile off campus.

All we're saying is that if the administrators and higher-ups at Rice are going to boast this super system that is essential to the overall educational experience, they ought to provide said experience -- or at least be better about disclosing how it all works. 

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