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Competing For Grad Students

Guest Column
Ron Dror

MIT’s success as a research institution hinges on its ability to attract the best and brightest students in the world. As our peer institutions pour billions of dollars into their science and engineering programs, top prospective graduate students often choose between top universities based on quality-of-life issues. Primary among these criteria is the availability of affordable, conveniently located housing.

Unfortunately, MIT is falling further and further behind its competitors in precisely this area. While MIT houses only 28 percent of its graduate students, Harvard houses 37 percent; Stanford houses over 60 percent, and recently invested $200 million in a major initiative to construct new graduate housing. MIT is unusual among its peer institutions in failing to guarantee housing even to incoming graduate students.

Of the 50 percent of MIT graduate students requesting on-campus housing each year, nearly half cannot be accommodated. The Presidential Task Force on Student Life and Learning found in its 1998 report that “Recent increases in Cambridge housing prices have negatively affected the ability of MIT to compete for graduate students.” Indeed, rents in some Boston and Cambridge apartments have quadrupled since the end of rent control in 1994.

Faculty committees, student groups, and the Cambridge City Council have demanded repeatedly over the past ten years that MIT invest in graduate housing immediately. MIT has failed to respond to these demands. Official Institute statements from the fall of 1998 promised that a graduate dormitory at the Sidney and Pacific site would be completed by 2002, but this dormitory has been dropped entirely from the current capital budget. Even the recently announced conversion of abandoned warehouse NW30 to graduate housing -- MIT’s only clear step toward alleviating the graduate housing shortage -- was undertaken on the condition that the project would entirely cover its own costs.

To maintain a top-tier graduate student body, MIT must invest substantially and immediately in graduate housing. Construction of a 600-bed facility at the Sidney and Pacific site, followed by a second 500-bed graduate dormitory in the same area, would allow MIT to approach its long-promised goal of providing housing to half its graduate students.

Quality of available housing is as important as its quantity to prospective graduate students. Graduate housing should support MIT’s educational triad of community, research, and teaching by encouraging interaction both among graduate students and between graduate students and faculty.

In particular, both newly constructed dormitories and the renovated building NW30 should include community spaces, a housemaster’s apartment, and an endowment to support residential programming.

A substantial investment in graduate housing will ensure that the graduate students who form a majority of MIT’s student body remain the best in the world.

This column has been endorsed by the Executive Committee of the Graduate Student Council.

Ron Dror is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.