Mandatory freshmen housing ‘singlehandedly sunk’ by senator
A proposal that would make it mandatory for first time in college freshmen to live on campus starting Fall 2015 is “dead” after state senator and UH alumnus John Whitmire opposed it, citing financial implications and UH’s commuter reputation.
“There appear to be people in this administration that are not familiar with the trials and tribulations and challenges of the student body,” Whitmire said. “We have many working class families that barely can afford to pay tuition and books. They live at home, they work – often times supporting their families, parents, or siblings – and to uproot them and require them to live on campus was really not indicative that the administration understands their student body.”
Whitmire confirmed to The Cougar that the proposal was no longer being considered after a text message exchange with Chancellor Renu Khator.
“The university has assured me that it has been taken off the table and is dead,” Whitmire said. “I will continue to monitor it and take whatever steps are necessary to see that it never gets any life again.”
The proposal required first time in college freshman who live more than 20 miles from campus, are not married, and do not have a child to live on campus in UH housing. It included waivers for students who have a medical or ADA need, have financial difficulty, and who have a reason that deemed it counterproductive for them to live on campus.
Whitmire is also part of the finance committee of the Texas Senate, which he says contributes to his reasoning behind why the proposal is “illogical” and a “terrible conceived idea,” but holds no ill will towards Khator.
“I think (Khator) is probably the best thing to happen to UH in many, many years,” Whitmire said. “I think she does an outstanding job. I think she got some really poor advice from her team of managers, or administration and that alarms me.”
Whitmire graduated in 1975, when he got a Bachelor of Arts and then studied at UH’s Bates College of Law. He commuted during his time attending UH, working full-time and living in a two-bedroom apartment with his mom in Oak Forest, where he paid most of the rent.
“I had no choice but to commute if I wanted to attend a public university,” Whitmire said. “I worked my way through UH. That is very typical of the UH experience then and now. I can’t emphasize the diversity of the UH student body. And it’s not just ethnicity, but life circumstances.”
Students are taking out loans to finance their education that looks like a house note when they get through. They’re in debt, often times for the rest of their life. Why would you add the additional cost for housing when they were already provided housing by their family or their partner?” – Texas Senator John Whitmire
Constituents of Whitmire’s have contacted him with different reasons why the mandatory freshmen housing proposal would not work for them, citing undocumented parents, gay and lesbian relationships, and ethnic tradition as main reasons why they did not agree with the proposal.
“They’re first generation students and sometimes they do not feel comfortable with their young people living out of the home,” Whitmire said. “You’ve got a large part of our community that can’t get married. I’ve got young people that are members of families with undocumented parents, who feel like they need to be in the home, not on the UH campus residing.”
Because of his experience on the finance committee, Whitmire is determined to keep affordability to the students a main priority.
“It is unbelievable the cost of going to a public university. UH and other schools continue to raise tuition,” Whitmire said. “It is almost unaffordable to go to college if you’re from a very working class family. Students are taking out loans to finance their education that looks like a house note when they get through. They’re in debt, often times for the rest of their life. Why would you add the additional cost for housing when they were already provided housing by their family or their partner?”
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW?
Whitmire compares UH to Texas A&M University and the University of Texas, saying they are not commuter schools and that UH will never be a destination school, which may represent what some may consider the old UH – the age of commuters and limited campus life. Since Khator’s appointment in 2008, three new dorms, including both Cougar Villages and Calhoun Lofts have been built, and the demolition and reconstruction of Cougar Place in 2013, upped the number of beds on campus to 8,008, the second most in the state behind Texas A&M.
“I love this school and to me what he is saying there is that his degree, my degree, our degree, isn’t worth as much as UT or A&M’s. And I think that’s correct. Ours is worth more,” Student Government Administration President Charles Haston said. “Not everybody else sees it that way, and I’m afraid that he doesn’t even see it that way. And that’s really disappointing.”
Texas A&M and the University of Texas have a more Anglo based population, with more students who don’t work and come from a middle to upper class income, according to Whitmire.
“It’s a different student body, different experience,” Whitmire said. “No, we won’t ever be a Texas or A&M but we have the opportunity to be an outstanding university, which we have made great strides, and one of things that’s going to make us more outstanding than A&M and Texas is our diversity, the cultural communities that gather on the UH campus to attend class.”
“It disgusts me that a single alum of our university is given this much control over UH policy decisions, especially one that hasn’t attended the school in 40 years, when we’ve become such a vastly different place in just six.” - SGA senator Clint Kirchhoff
Under Khator’s leadership, graduation rates have increased academic progress, according to Haston. Data included in the original proposal presentation states that retention rates from year to year are higher when the student lives on campus, as opposed to commuting five times a week. The presentation also states that GPAs in students who lived on campus were on average higher than their commuting peers, somewhere between .01 and .11 percent, with more significant increases in students of Hispanic and African American ethnicity, whose GPAs were .16 and .23 percent higher.
“If you look at what Chancellor Khator has done since she’s been here, she has really moved the needle for this university,” Haston said. “At an institution of higher learning, though, what we should be doing is having conversations, and having educated conversations about how to continue moving that needle and how to continue making this university competitive and even more competitive with UT and A&M and it makes me really sad to see one of our most public alumni, like John Whitmire, slam the university that way.”
Haston also points out that the proposal was just a talking point for students, meant to start a conversation and rules were put in place in order to keep students who could not afford to live on campus or had any other reason to not live on campus be heard.
“If you actually look at what the proposal was, it was laden with all sorts of exemptions and the ability to appeal based on any number of things, including financial need,” Haston said. “There was not going to be a situation where there was a student that couldn’t afford to live here that would do that, who would end up being somehow displaced and not be able to attend the University of Houston. Although we used the word ‘mandatory,’ the number of exemptions and the ease at which the students could opt out of that was so significant that the notion that we would somehow be marginalizing students, like John Whitmire was when he was a student here, is just factually incorrect. And that’s what’s really frustrating for me.”
Student reaction to the proposal has been somewhat mixed, from supporters who think that mandatory freshman housing would push UH to a new level, to people thinking UH should stay a commuter school for the sake of affordability. Whitmire has been the only public opponent to the proposal and, according to Haston, “singlehandedly sunk this.”
“It disgusts me that a single alum of our university is given this much control over UH policy decisions, especially one that hasn’t attended the school in 40 years, when we’ve become such a vastly different place in just six,” SGA Senator Clint Kirchhoff said.
While the old and the new both have different approaches, when it comes down to it they both have a common goal: student success and affordability. Whitmire is lead to believe by some that this is really more about money and that this would hinder students in the long run, referring to private apartment complexes going up near UH that rival on campus living.
“I’m very appreciative of my UH experience,” Whitmire said. “I want UH to do well. I want UH to spend its money wisely. I would argue that UH deserves more money, which I do on a regular basis.”
State funding from the state to UH has decreased 33 percent over the last 30 years, which Haston says is a reason why affordability on campus has become a concern from Whitmire.
“I think that we need to make sure that we maintain affordability in education so that we are able to serve those students,” Haston said. “It’s actually more affordable for a student to live on campus and attend classes here than it is for them to have an apartment off campus. What we’re really trying to do is prevent the student who can afford to live off campus from living at a private apartment complex adjacent to campus.”
SGA has invited Whitmire to their first Senate meeting on September 3 in an effort for Whitmire to meet with students and discuss the situation further. At press time, Whitmire has not responded.
“I think one of the things that really is important as one of our alums, as a state senator, is that he actually engages in conversations with the students here,” Haston said. “What’s really disappointing is that we are trying to do everything possible to contribute to student success at the University of Houston. And if it is true, which it is, that the data shows that students who live on campus are statistically more likely to graduate, take more credit hours, graduate in time, and have higher GPAs, then why wouldn’t you want to do that, or at a minimum, have a discussion about doing that?”