Flyers plastered around Barnard College last Thursday posed a simple question in bold font: "Did you know Barnard College no longer offers winter break housing?"
The women's college affiliated with Columbia has long had a strict winter-break policy, charging some students $400 to stay in their dorms for the month-long break between Fall and Spring semesters. This year, only "mission critical" students like varsity athletes and tour guides are invited to remain in dorms between December 24th and January 16th. International students, homeless students, those who would like to stay on campus for a short-term internship or for any other "individual personal reasons" must seek alternative housing. The latest policy update was announced in April.
"I have nowhere to go," one Junior Sociology student from the west coast told us this afternoon. She is legally emancipated from her parents, and spoke with us on the condition of anonymity. She is staying on Barnard campus this winter because, she says, "My dorm at Barnard is my permanent, if temperamental, address."
"Essentially, it's not a plan or choice to stay here, it's the only option," she added. "There might be a friend's floor I can crash on, but I'm unsure if she's going to charge rent, which I wouldn't be able to pay."
At neighboring Columbia, students are allowed free access to their dorms throughout winter break.
"As we look at when staff takes vacation and what the expectations are of them for fulfilling their job responsibilities, we have to take all of that into consideration," Barnard Dean Avis Hinkson told the Columbia Spectator last week. "Being open for the entire break is just not something we can continue to do."
A spokeswoman for the administration also cited the school's financial issues as a factor in reducing winter housing, as well as construction on campus, and limited campus resources over winter break.
Hickson told the Spectator in October that, "Students could certainly look into house-sitting... I also know of another student who was a nanny over the holiday last year."
According to Barnard's office of residential life, 98% of freshman choose to live on campus, and the vast majority stay in dorms for four years—90% of the undergraduate class of 2,573 currently lives in campus housing.
StreatEasy currently lists 41 two-bedrooms in Barnard's Morningside Heights, with a median rent of $3,000 a month. The median for a studio is $2,200. This is comparable to monthly on-campus housing costs at Barnard—about $1,236 for a shared room and $2,131 for a studio—but a footnote on the Residential Life & Housing website states that "students who choose to live off-campus may be eligible for less Financial Aid than students who choose to live on-campus."
"It's not like once you're a sophomore you want to live off campus," said Toni Airaksinen, a 19-year-old sophomore from Cleveland. "Obviously if you're someone from a very wealthy background... it tends to be people who already have family in the city or parents who leased them an apartment."
Flyers put up last Thursday around campus (via Airaksinen).
A first-generation college student, Airaksinen grew up on welfare and is attending Barnard on a full scholarship. She was planning to stay on campus over winter break this year to do volunteer work. "When you're someone who is low income or international, you might not have long-term connections in the city," she told us this morning. "So what happens is you're supposed to rely on other people for housing. As a young woman in New York City looking for cheap housing... that makes you really vulnerable."
Airaksinen co-authored an online petition with 1,143 signatures as of this writing, demanding that Barnard re-open its winter housing, and provide financial assistance to students who cannot afford the associated fees. The petition describes students negatively impacted—those who come from unsafe or abusive homes, who can't afford to travel, or who would jeopardize an off-campus job by taking leave for a month. Airaksinen estimates that between 25 and 45 students fit into one or more of these categories.
Several Barnard students have recently written anonymously about their winter housing troubles on the blog Columbia Confessions, under the tag #homelessness.
Barnard has chipped away at its winter-break housing options steadily since 2009. That year, the college instated a $100 fee, excluding RAs, athletes, seniors and international students. The fee jumped to $200 in 2011. In 2013, students were charged twice that—$400 for the entire break, or $100 for the week leading up to the beginning of the Spring semester.
Last year, winter-break housing was confined to a single dorm, putting the onus on impacted students to negotiate with classmates in other campus buildings. Eighteen students ultimately took advantage, according to the administration.
This winter, in order to apply to return to campus between January 10th and 16th, students must fill out a form [PDF] laying out explicitly their need to return to campus. The form requires a faculty or advisor signature.
On Friday, in response to the campus-wide flyering, Hinkson sent an e-mail to students encouraging those without housing plans for winter break to schedule a meeting with Dean Michell Tollinchi-Michel "as soon as possible."
"We realize that there are always extenuating circumstances," she wrote. "She will work with each of you to help resolve your individual situation."
The emancipated Junior we spoke to says that she's schedule to meet with Hinkson. "I'm not expecting much," she said. "The administration has said that they'll meet with students so they can help you 'think about' your options, i.e. they'll 'think about nannying!' or 'think about housesitting!' and expect you to find the solution on your own."
"Barnard positions itself as a bastion of postmodern feminism and social awareness," she added. "They hide behind this image. Before Barnard further builds up its brand as the 'leading women's college in the nation', it [should] answer the needs of its low income students. Low income kids like myself are more than a brochure statistic."
According the administration, "At this time, approximately a dozen students have reached out for help. These specific situations are being resolved in varying ways, and we will continue to help students find solutions on a case-by-case basis." A spokeswoman also stressed that the winter housing policy has been public for more than six months, giving students adequate time to make arrangements.
Additional reporting by Eric Silver.