Pain Formula

In examining and updating the Comprehensive Plan for the Undergraduate House system this year, a special review committee under the guidance of John B. Fox '59 dean of the College, is taking a close look at a variety of issues. While most of these topics are well-known to students--housing lotteries and interhouse transfer policy, for example--the masters committee is also analyzing one relatively mysterious issue that has a considerable effect on House living.

Designed to guide University Hall in its yearly task of placing freshmen in the 12 residential Houses, the so-called "Collier formula" is a complex scheme to determine the crowding capacity of each House. According to Currier House Master Dudley R. Hershbach, who is studying the Collier formula this year. Harvard considers "ideal occupancy" in the Houses as one student per bedroom. The Houses have 3581 bedrooms, but need to accommodate some 4600 students. The problem, then, is how to distribute the approximately 1000 students who seemingly don't have places to live.

As freshmen are run through the Housing lottery each year, the University funnels data on each House and its accommodations through the Collier formula to set quotas on how many of the 1000 overflow students each House can take. What Hershbach contends--and what previous studies have determined--is that the formula fails to account for some of the differences in physical attributes among the Houses, resulting in excessive crowding in some Houses and more comfortable situations in others.

The problem, Hershbach says, results partly from the formula's heritage. For the many years when the Quad was still under Radcliffe jurisdiction. Harvard officials basically distributed extra students equally among the River Houses, which can accomodate crowding largely through the use of living room space and large bedrooms. But when the Quad Houses came under the Harvard system--and after the architecturally distinct Mather House, New Quincy, and Leverett towers were added--equal distribution became a thing of the past.

The Collier formula, devised in the early 1970s by a former assistant dean of the College. Bruce Collier, seeks to address the disparities among the newly dissimilar Houses through a variety of subjective "pain" factors, based on different living conditions. For example, if a student lives in a suite's living room or if a student's bedroom serves as a passageway to a bathroom, then the rooming configuration receives a certain number of "pain" points. Using information on every one of the College's nine types of room configurations, the Collier formula tries to minimize the pain while maximizing the number of students who can be put into a room.


Hershbach says the inequities arise from the fact that "pain" is minimized more easily in those Houses which have larger accomodations and more living rooms. In Lowell House, for example, there are 182 living rooms as contrasted to Currier's 19, making for a large difference in available space. But the current formula only partly accounts for such differences when assigning extra students to Houses. Hershbach adds, saying that the formula's structural weaknesses--evident upon reviewing statistics--need to be solved.

Some Housing officials have suggested that the "ideal occupancy" definition should be changed so that living rooms be officially counted as bedrooms when the University assigns each year's new House residents.

While Hershbach declines to detail how any proposed amendments might adjust the formula and alleviate crowding in certain Houses--particularly at the Quad, where it is harder to "crowd" the many single bedrooms--he says the net result would not differ greatly from the current situation. But for those Houses that are crowded, he says. "We think it can be improved in a number of respects."