Fees address ‘Queen’s specific needs’

Queen’s residence fees are among the highest in the country, but are students getting enough in return?

A portion of residence fees collected now and in the future will go toward a $67-million redevelopment project.
A portion of residence fees collected now and in the future will go toward a $67-million redevelopment project.

As a don, Sarah Burd, ArtSci ’06, said it’s part of her job to help students with their everyday worries. She said students have approached her during her two years as a don to discuss stressful issues ranging from relationships to grades. But there’s one topic students have never discussed with her.

Money.

“More often than not, students don’t have to worry,” Burd said. “Money is not [an issue] that I see. I actually have never had a money issue.”

Burd’s experience might surprise researchers at Maclean’s. Last year, Maclean’s released its Residence Report as part of its annual Guide to Universities. According to a Maclean’s survey of Canadian university residences, the most basic residence room with a meal plan at Queen’s during the 2004-05 academic year was the priciest in the province, when compared to basic residence rooms at other universities.

At $6,748 per student, that same basic residence room and board package was the fourth most expensive in the entire country, behind similar packages at McGill ($7,584), Dalhousie ($7,302) and the University of King’s College ($7,175). According to Maclean’s, a single room in a Queen’s residence with a meal plan cost $8,348 in 2004-05, while all other Canadian universities have a lower-cost option for the same type of room and plan.

And that rate at Queen’s isn’t going down. A 3.75 per cent increase in residence fees has been implemented in past years and is planned to take place in future years to cover inflationary and other growing costs, according to Roxy Denniston-Stewart, associate dean of student affairs.

Although Burd said she hasn’t fielded many complaints, MCRC President Alexis Meyerman said she believes high residence fees are getting the attention of more and more students.

Meyerman said she is trying to ensure students living in residence understand the impact of rising residence costs.

“[I tell students] ‘In 2010, it’s going to cost you $10,000. In 2015, it’s going to cost $12,000’—I’ve said this in multiple rooms and the room just hushes,” she said.

Meyerman said she has been approached by students in residence who are concerned about the cost of their room and board.

“Students paying $8,000 right now feel they’re being overcharged,” she said. “For the fees we’re paying, we should have the [fourth] top quality residences [in the country] and we don’t.”

According to last year’s Globe and Mail University Report Card, Queen’s students surveyed gave their campus residences a B grade, while Ontario universities like Brock and Western received As for their residences. The cost of a single room with meal plan at Brock ranges from $6,640 to $7,140, and at Western from $6,685 to $7,105 in 2004-05. At Queen’s, the single room and meal plan option cost $8,348.

Denniston-Stewart, who oversees the administration of residences from her office in Victoria Hall, said it is difficult to get an accurate cost comparison from one university to another.

“Queen’s fees, when compared to [similar] packages, are very well-matched,” Denniston-Stewart said. “Most of the variation between campuses has to do with the meal plan.”

Unlike other universities, Queen’s requires all students living on main campus to pay for at least 10 cafeteria meals per week plus $600 in flex dollars. Other schools may have looser requirements governing meal plans.

“[It’s a] decision we have made that students [on main campus] will have meals from their first day in September to the day they move out,” Denniston-Stewart said. “In first year, it’s very important students don’t have to worry or find money in mid-year or have to cook.”

Denniston-Stewart said one of the primary principles guiding decisions made about the services Queen’s residences will offer—which then affects the cost—is quality. She said Queen’s residences strive to maintain “a certain standard.”

“Are you going to be the lowest common denominator, best possible or somewhere in between?” Denniston-Stewart said. “Queen’s has always used as one of its benchmarks that Queen’s is about quality.”

However, she added that debt, the cost of the Residence Life program and deferred maintenance are significant factors in determining the cost of residence.

“More than $500 per student is going to roofs and windows,” she said.

In addition to covering the costs of new residences like Leggett and Watts Halls—some of the most expensive residence buildings ever built in the province—a portion of residence fees collected now and in the future will also be going towards a $67-million redevelopment project to upgrade fixtures and furnishings in older residences.

“We are really trying to address Queen’s specific needs,” she said. “We made choices based on Queen’s standards that reflect our values.

“Could we achieve that at a lesser cost? We may never know because ... if this is what we want to achieve, this is what it is.”

Denniston-Stewart added that it is important students in residence feel they have received value for their money.

“We certainly use student money wisely and we only invest in projects and priorities that are of benefit and will be of benefit to students,” she said.

However, Meyerman said she is concerned that some students are not receiving value from the cost of residence—in fact, they’re not receiving any of the benefits of living in residence, because they cannot afford the fees.

“Is residence or Queen’s in general a place for people who are rich and can afford to come here, or are we OK with sacrificing some of our comforts so everyone can attain [a Queen’s education]?” Meyerman said.

Meyerman said she is concerned that there are few low-cost residence options at Queen’s, particularly on main campus.

“Students are not getting that choice,” she said. “There’s a severe price to that—student accessibility.”

According to Meyerman, who sits on the budget subcommittee of the Senate Residence Committee that determines fees, the subcommittee is not mandated to consider financial accessibility.

Denniston-Stewart said that as residence fees have risen, there has not been a drop in students wanting to live in residence.

“What we do know is that applications to Queen’s have increased or remained constant,” she said, adding the percentage of first-year students who choose residence has remained at 90 to 95 per cent.

Denniston-Stewart added that students overwhelmingly choose Watts and Leggett Halls, the most expensive options, as their first residence choice.

“The second priority is a single room on main campus and the third priority is a single room at Jean Royce Hall,” she said.

“We know students are still coming. That does not address students who never got here in the first place.” While the majority of first-year students at Queen’s choose to live in residence, there are still some people who don’t.

Meyerman said she is concerned about the lack of support mechanisms for those students, namely first-year students not living in residence, or FYNIRS.

Jon Thompson, ArtSci ’05 and currently a master’s student at Queen’s, was a FYNIR when he first came to Kingston from his hometown of Oshawa, Ont. He said he chose not to live in residence because the cost was prohibitive. According to Denniston-Stewart, living in residence costs roughly $2,500 to $3,000 more per year than living off-campus. “Some people do not have the luxury of paying more for quality,” Thompson said. “Is the cost prohibitive for people to live in residence? The answer is absolutely yes.

“The classic argument we have is 95 per cent of students opt in [to residence], so we must be doing a good job ... [but] do we have a coercive force making students choose residence?”

Thompson said he believes that letters of acceptance sent out by the University always make it a priority to state residence options but don’t place the same importance on mentioning off-campus options.

He said he also doubts how much student satisfaction with residences is a result of a higher quality of residence building and programs.

“Every student coming out of first year will tell you, ‘I know it was expensive but I had a great time and I met a lot of people.’ It’s the people, it’s the dons,” he said.

In 2003, Thompson served as chair of an AMS FYNIRS committee. He said that in a survey conducted that year with students who participated in Orientation Week, approximately 250 of about 1,850 respondents said they did not live in residence. About 125 of the students not living in residence said they were not from Kingston.

Thompson said the lack of resources for FYNIRS that are available to students in residence—such as dons—has a huge impact.

“Why do we have residence dons?

First-year students need someone to ease their transition. Don’t these students [not in residence] have the same needs as those who live in residence?” Thompson said. “Five per cent of students are wholly excluded from this university.”

Thompson said little information is collected about the experiences of students who do not live in residence during their first year.

“There seems to be this sort of hesitance to look into the graduation rates of students who don’t live in residence,” he said.

Thompson said he believes residences should be more in tune with the University’s academic mission.

“We have to humanize this institution or it’s a vending machine,” he said. “If you can’t pay for it or you choose not to, it’s not there. There are two different Queen’s, depending on how much money you’re willing to spend.”

Meyerman said she believes all student governments should encourage universities to collect more data on students to better determine who is being included and excluded from living in residence.

Meyerman said that MCRC represents students in the consultative process on residence issues, but also that MCRC needs to be more effective than it has in the past.

Meyerman said she believes students in residence should be considered shareholders by the administration.

She said she hopes MCRC will play an active part in budget and administrative meetings, and in entrenching financial accessibility as one of the goals of the budget subcommittee.

MCRC is currently trying to encourage its house presidents to be aware of the issues surrounding residence fees. She said for the first time this year, MCRC has organized training sessions for floor representatives.

“We’re trying to get [students in residence] engaged earlier,” she said.

Meyerman said she hopes students—both residents and non-residents, first-year or otherwise—will contact her to get involved in focus groups on residence fees.

How Queen’s stacks up

According to the 2005 Maclean’s Guide to Universities, these are the five most expensive residence fees for a double room and meal plan:

In Ontario:

1. Queen’s: $6,748
2. University of Toronto: $6,700
3. Carleton: $6,519
4. Trent University and Wilfrid
Laurier University (tie): $6,462
5. University of Waterloo: $6,397

In Canada:

1. McGill University: $7,584
2. Dalhousie University: $7,302
3. University of King’s College: $7,175
4. Queen’s University: $6,748
5. University of Toronto: $6,700

—Source: 2005 Maclean’s Guide to Universities

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