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The Case for 'Enhanced Choice'

By Jennifer W. Grove

There is an old adage which says you can please all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. But the Undergraduate Council is trying.

With this year's review of the housing lottery, student views on the best mode of house assignment are being argued back and forth. Masters are discussing how the house system can be improved, information is being collected on house composition, surveys are being taken to find out what the students really want and the council is listening to it all. The council has taken the opportunity to advise Dean of the College L. Fred Jewett '57 and the Committee on House Life of the best way to improve the housing lottery. The position I have advocated on the council as co-chair of the residential committee is a compromise which will allow students more choice, yet will maintain the heterogeneity of the houses.

To understand the problems that the council faced in proposing its new system, it is helpful to understand the reasons for the original change in the house assignment system. In 1989, members of the administration gathered information about the student composition of each house. The results of this research showed that several houses lacked the sort of diversity Harvard prides itself on. Five specific problems were outlined:

.Two houses had very high athletic participation, and two houses had very low participation. The houses with the high athletic participation rates had low participation rates in other extracurriculars. Setting aside the fact that the high house, which had a 67 percent athletic participation rate, was in violation of NCAA rules prohibiting any dormitory to contain more than 50 percent athletes, the deans and house masters were upset that members of this house had so little exposure to students active in the arts, in ethnic groups and in political groups.

.Academic achievement levels in the houses, as measured by SAT scores and honors graduates, were also skewed. Masters and administrators felt that the houses needed to be more academically diverse.

.A breakdown of concentrations of house members found that two houses were under-represented in the sciences (as low as 9 percent) and two in the humanities (as low as 16 percent), while one house was overrepresented in the social sciences (63 percent). Once again, it was determined that friendships with students from other concentrations offered a necessary introduction to different modes of thought.

.Two houses had high percentages of private school students (as high as 48 percent), and one house had a very low number (27 percent) of students on financial aid. Students in these houses had less opportunity to meet a socio-economically diverse group of people.

.Two houses had a low percentage of minority students (as low as 18 percent), making it difficult for members of these houses to have an ethnically diverse group of friends.

After examining this data, the masters and the administration decided that the houses assignment system, which allowed students to rank their top three house choices, needed to be revised so that house composition would be made more diverse. A majority of the masters, along with Jewett (who makes final decisions about the house assignment system), favored randomization. Randomization, they believed, would prevent a homogeneous group of students from inhabiting a house.

Students and a few house masters wanted to preserve student choice, but they were unable to address the concerns about the lack of diversity satisfactorily. The Undergraduate Council thus came up with the present non-ordered choice system. When the Committee on House Life accepted this compromise, it agreed to review the house assignment system in three years.

That review is happening now. The data, which will be released December 9, show much more diversity in the houses now. They are much closer to being microcosms of the Harvard student population. But many students are still dissatisfied with the house assignment system. They would like to see more student choice.

This is where enhanced choice comes in.

The enhanced choice system would allow students to designate one house as their first choice and three houses as non-ordered-choice houses. Random lottery numbers would be assigned. The group with the first number would be assigned to its first choice house. Each subsequent group would be assigned to its first choice house until 25 percent of the house is filled.

If a group has listed a house as its first choice, and this house has filled 25 percent of its openings, the group will be put on hold until the second round. When all rooming groups have either been assigned to their first choice or put on hold, the second round would begin. In the second round, the first choice house joins the three non-ordered-choice houses, and the lottery proceeds as it does now. The final round would be, as it is now, a randomized round for groups that do not fit into any of their four chosen houses.

Enhanced choice provides students with what they want--a greater say in where they will spend their final three years at Harvard.

All students will have a better chance of getting their first choice. Right now, students only have a 25 percent chance of having the computer randomly select their first choice out of the four listed. Under enhanced choice, that percentage is closer to 45 percent, because students get two chances to get into their first choice.

If a student's dream house is filled 25 percent before his or her number comes up, that student still has a chance to get into the house in the second round. The first choice will be recylced with the other three choices, and there is a 25 percent chance that the computer will select that house. Less popular houses will also benefit. If a blocking group wanted to live in Currier (which always goes random), for example, enhanced choice would allow the students to pick it as their first choice, almost guaranteeing acceptance.

House stereotypes will not return under this system because most students will still be assigned in the non-ordered choice method. The problem with ordered choice was that certain houses had almost all their spaces ranked first by a homogeneous group of people. Enhanced choice will not allow such homogeneous groups to fully make up a house. Most likely, no more than 43.75 percent of a house will be composed of students who designated that house as their first choice.

This system has another key benefit: It is acceptable to the administration. I have spoken to several house masters who agree that the system is feasible, and several others who believe it to be an excellent compromise between student interest in choice and student and administrative desire for diversity. Several deans also applaud the system, and indicate that it could quite possibly go into effect this year. The council's efforts to work with the administration have given this year's first-year students an opportunity to reap the benefits of enhanced choice.

Students should be allowed to live where they want. Enhanced choice gives them a greater opportunity to do so at virtually no cost to the increased diversity of the houses. The Undergraduate Council, in responding to student requests for greater choice in the housing lottery and balancing them against the need for diverse communities, can truly be said to be following the will of the students.

Jennifer W. Grove '94 is an editor of The Crimson. She is also co-chair of the Undergraduate Council's Residential Committee and a member of the Committee on House Life.

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