Dorming at Princeton
As far as college towns go, Princeton is a little different. Almost all of the campus buildings are enclosed in one part of the town, with little to no car traffic disturbing walks to class. You won’t see big apartment complexes around town, and the closest you get to “frat row” is the eating clubs at Prospect Avenue, as the fraternities and sororities on campus are no longer recognized by the University or allowed to have houses.
After growing up and attending high school in an area close to UVA, I had grown accustomed to seeing an influx of traffic in town when students returned, new apartment buildings going up and filling up seemingly overnight, and streets lined with students’ houses, red Solo cups and college decals abound.
Princeton’s size is one reason for the difference in atmosphere. With only a little over 4,000 undergrads, the student community feels at times very small, far different from other sprawling campuses. Also, the town of Princeton itself is a definite limiting factor to student housing. The University is in a very expensive neighborhood; so cheap rentals to accommodate student budgets are scarce to unheard of.
For these reasons, and also the fact that the University guarantees housing all four years (barring expulsion from housing for disciplinary reasons, though this is rare), almost all undergrads remain on campus, a very different experience than that at other schools. All of the student dorms are enclosed in the same area as most of the academic buildings, the “Princeton Bubble,” if you will. In a given week, depending on their schedules, most students could go a few days without really walking through the town itself.
This system comes with its advantages and disadvantages. In some ways it’s easier to get overly caught up in campus life and out of touch with the real world when everyone is living together. At the same time, however, there is a prevailing campus “atmosphere” and a camaraderie that comes from living in close quarters with your classmates. It’s easier to meet new people when you live in a different room each year, with new neighbors, than if you lived in a house with your closest friends. There’s also something equalizing, especially on a campus consistently working hard to eliminate prevailing economic disparities between students, about getting a room based on “luck of the draw,” rather than what you can afford.
Starting sophomore year, many of my friends from high school at other colleges started getting apartments and houses. I’ll admit I often got jealous, checking out their Facebook albums, set in what looked like cozy, little homes shared with their best friends. Living in a house seemed like a fun assertion of independence in some ways. But when I thought more about it—about utilities, and leases, and finding someone to sublet during the summer—I started to appreciate what Princeton has to offer more and more. After all, we have a janitor who cleans the hallways and shared bathrooms for us, building services to replace anything that goes wrong in the room, free wireless, and painless move-in and move-out.
Of course, not everything is great about living on campus all four years. One disadvantage is that though Princeton guarantees all students a room, it’s not necessarily the best room. Students choose a draw group of up to eight people in early March (often a dramatic and stressful process as people are forced to choose between friends and confront awkward housing situations) and then groups are randomly assigned draw times. There are some coveted rooms on campus that go to the lucky few with good draw times (usually seniors have the best rooms, as they draw first), but especially in recent years, there have been shortages of rooms, particularly single and double rooms, as most of the Butler college dorms are closed for renovation. In the end, everyone gets a room, but some end up with small or unfavorable living situations if they are near the end of the list, occasionally pushing dissatisfied students off-campus, into the limited number of apartments above the Nassau Street area retailers.
Though I’m still going to be excited about the novelty of visiting friends’ apartments, I really enjoy on-campus life. I love getting to walk down the hall and run into friends, the excitement of showing back up to campus in the fall and meeting new neighbors, and spontaneously hanging out in the courtyards when the weather is warm. The close-knit campus community is an essential part of the Princeton experience, and I’d feel like I was missing out if I had to ever move off campus. Though the college town itself may not be typical, neither is Princeton.