Flawed but fixable: Small changes would make housing lottery a winning system

By Allie Duggan ’20

Tags opinion

As the snow melts and rays of long anticipated sunlight break through the clouds, it becomes clear that spring has arrived at Hamilton, and with that comes the long anticipated campus horror—The Housing Lottery. A time of ceaseless group messages figuring out who is pulling whom, what your group’s average number will be if you’re blocking and, of course, the stray text from the desperate number 457 asking you what you received and…could you possibly pull them? The question remains—is it a fair system? And if not, how could it be changed?

The Housing Lottery is, without fail, the biggest root of stress and drama on campus every year; however, when asked if and how students could change the lottery, many of them claimed that while they did not like the system, they would not opt to change it. The random assignment of numbers makes it difficult to hold a grudge against a system as it is systematically fair and everyone is given an equal shot. Nadav Konforty ’20 says, “I don’t think that changing the system will actually make it better. In something like the housing lottery, there will always be ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’” Alex Brantl ’18 laughed at her own situation (rolling high with number 426,) saying, “Honestly it’s just funny […] I didn’t know it was possible to get [such a bad lottery number] without having points or other issues.”

An idea often suggested as an alternative to the randomly assigned numbers is a number based on a student’s academic rank within the class, insisting that it would offer an interesting incentive. This idea is often written off to be an idea produced by members at the top of their class, but this is not always the case. A student wishing to remain anonymous stated: “Look, I’m ranked 394th in my class, academically. I work hard but I take extremely difficult classes, I’m [involved in athletics] and have an on-campus job. So yeah, I’m not the top of my class, but I also got number 15 for the Housing Lottery. I can understand why people who are near the top of the class, who work their tail off, and are still given a bad number would be interested in a system based off merit.” 

Although the idea of a meritocratic system might appeal to some, it would still cause upset and unrest. The unpredictability and undeniable randomness of the current lottery system makes it difficult to critique, though people might try. Catharine Pierce ’20 claims: “I think the lottery system is pretty good, and usually seems to work out. Honestly, none of the options are too bad, and it seems to me that it usually works out.  Usually someone has a good number and can pull their friends up, and if not, people seem to still be fine with Bundy and some of the further housing options. Overall, I think it’s a fair and organic process that is much better than other schools where people have to pay more for prime housing, putting others at a disadvantage.”

Much of the unrest seems to appear and disappear the day that numbers are assigned, as students quickly iron out final rooming plans. The source of confusion and panic is more commonly associated with day of the lottery itself, which this year takes place on April 23. Two members of the class of 2020 who opted to go for substance free housing have already been through the lottery process. They commented that “the process was very successful, but also a little inefficient.  It was impossible to know what number they were on because they only announced it when they couldn’t find someone, but other than that, it was clear which rooms were still available, and we ended up getting what we wanted.” Regarding the substance free lottery specifically, Jade Thomas ’20 remarks that her “only dissatisfied comment regards the fact that a student truly wanting a sub-free environment could be cheated by not getting a good sub-free lottery number, forced to put names on waiting lists, and that’s unfair to them.”

One of the ways the process could be improved is in its organization, not in the randomly assigned numbers. The disorganization of the system is what seems to be what makes the process so stressful. Being unaware of what is happening leads to a sense of panic: Did they already call your number? What rooms are left? Wait, but is that dorm affected by gender blocking? 

Some ways to improve the system include keeping the system updated online and listing what rooms have been taken or are affected by gender blocking. Additionally, keeping an updated countdown of sorts as to what number they are currently on would mitigate confusion on the day of the lottery. The creation of a more clear and concise process would create an environment of less stress and more efficiency. 

Overall, the housing lottery process, although it consumes a solid week or two of conversation each spring, is successful and fair. Even individuals at the very bottom of the lottery, after their initial distressed feelings, seem to understand that the existing system is the fairest and most effective way through which to assign numbers. Leaving the numbers completely to chance is the only way to create a fair system because it gives every individual on campus the same chance on a year-to-year basis. Additionally, the idea that you can ‘pull’ individuals into rooms with you or singles next to you creates a way to assure that you will not be completely separated from friends, relieving some concern.

My suggestion for improving the system, therefore, is to improve the organization of the program prior to the day of choosing and during that day. Hopefully, this could be fixed online through a live stream of the lottery. Even if this was improved, however, it would not end the endless griping between students that happens annually every spring, which, in the end, might just be unavoidable.

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