Tiffany Ortamond was visiting Pitzer College last spring when the tour guide said that older students could live in the dorms.
Ortamond, 26, said she immediately envisioned moving into one and being "part of the academic and social community." The U.S. Army veteran even considered living apart from her husband during the school year so she could study at the Claremont campus while he worked in Orange County.
But then Ortamond learned that the guide had misspoken: Undergraduates in the New Resources program, designed for students 25 and older, are not allowed to live on campus. So Ortamond commutes every day from her home in Tustin, a 35-mile drive each way.
"It's ironic that a place as liberal as Pitzer is marginalizing its minority students," Ortamond said.
College President Laura Skandera Trombley said that she understood Ortamond's frustration but that the school didn't have enough space to accommodate everyone. Pitzer only had enough room for about 70% of its students until last year, when the school opened two new dorms that added nearly 300 beds.
"I've heard from every constituent about how they've been frustrated and the college has tried to respond," Trombley said.
Pitzer administrators formed a group last year to study housing options.
The roughly 1,000-student school plans to build more residence halls so that 93% of undergraduates will be able to live on campus by 2020. Students must apply if they want to move off campus.
While most colleges and universities offer first-year undergraduates the chance to live on campus, many schools do not guarantee housing for transfer students. New Resources students range from freshmen to upperclassmen. The program is designed for older students who are pursuing a new career or want a liberal arts education in a small setting; participants can take courses on either a full- or part-time basis.
Pitzer student leaders acknowledge that the college has made progress but say that New Resources students should have been able to apply for the new dorms.
"I do think it's discrimination," said Chance Kawar, a freshman student senator who co-sponsored a resolution to allow older undergraduates into dorms. New Resources "students are just as much students as anyone else."
Kawar and others say that it's unlikely that many older students would want to live in the dorms because many already have families or don't want to have a roommate.
But a handful each year request housing because they have trouble finding suitable living arrangements and have to make long commutes, said Audrey Kolb, a New Resources senior who is also a student government leader.
"It can really be a problem for some people," said Kolb, 31, who said she never considered living on campus because the "idea of sharing a room would be weird."
One of the seven Claremont colleges, which also include Pomona and Harvey Mudd, Pitzer prides itself on its five core values, including social responsibility and environmental sustainability.
Instead of taking a set group of courses to fulfill their majors, Pitzer students work with their professors to develop a list of classes and requirements for graduation.
Many of the current 48 New Resources students said they were attracted to the school's idealism and sense of community.
"I'd never seen a school really follow their core values the way Pitzer does," said Kolb, a psychology major.
"I knew I wanted to go here from the moment I visited," Ortamond said.
It's unclear why older students have been prohibited from living on campus. The only mention of the restriction is a single line in the student handbook: "New Resources Students are not eligible for on-campus housing."
Pitzer administrators could not explain why the policy was originally adopted.
The program, which started in 1974, gives preference for admission to people who have not yet received an undergraduate degree. Participants pay the same tuition as regular undergraduates, which is $44,752 for full-time students, but there are special grants and financial aid packages for New Resources students and they can also study part-time.
New Resources students have a lounge with lockers where they can study or relax but "it would definitely be nice if I could take a 30-minute nap and have some space to myself," Ortamond said.
Ortamond said that her fellow students have been accommodating, holding study sessions during the day so she can attend, and that professors have been understanding when she's been caught in traffic.
The housing group, which includes students, administrators and faculty, is scheduled to issue a report by December, and Trombley said she anticipates that all students will have a chance to live on campus.
"I don't think we're going to have any problem housing transfer or New Resource students," she said.