Too Much for Some, Not Enough for Others

Pent up demand for an in-person college experience has led to student housing shortages at some colleges and universities this fall. But pandemic-related enrollment drops at other institutions are leaving residence halls below full capacity.

August 13, 2021
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Middlebury College in Vermont is offering students a 50 percent discount on room and board and a season pass to two ski mountains, with free ski equipment rentals, ahead of the start of the fall semester. But there's a catch: Those who get the free perks must agree to live in student housing some 11 miles away from campus. After enrolling about 2,880 students for this fall semester, 330 more than a typical year, Middlebury officials are hoping some students will find the tradeoff worth it and consider the off-campus option.

Wright State University cut student housing prices by about 20 percent to 35 percent, depending on the residence hall, in a bid to get more students to move into dorms on the Dayton, Ohio campus. Residence life officials also threw in free laundry room facilities for good measure.

Colleges and universities across the country are wrestling with similar housing headaches -- not enough housing to meet outsized student demand, or not enough students to fill surplus rooms -- ahead of the start of the new academic year. The problems come as the institutions struggle with maintaining dorm safety protocols and the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on enrollment numbers, causing inclines at some institutions and declines at others.

"There's no single story here," said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA, the professional organization for student affairs administrators. "It's very dependent on the institutional type, selectivity, and region. You'll see reports that say, 'This campus has more demand than they can accommodate and there's waiting lists,' and then you might go one state over, or even a different part of that state, and find a different story."

Some large land-grant universities and elite private institutions are "really stretched" to accommodate student housing demand. At the same time, non-elite private and public regional institutions that faced enrollment drops during the pandemic are likely to have underoccupied dorms. Some colleges in the Midwest and Northeast, which are experiencing a drop in the number of traditional-age students, are also falling short of reaching capacity.

Kruger said historically Black universities may be among those struggling to accommodate students' housing requests. Many HBCUs experienced increased enrollment in the wake of rising racial tensions nationally during the Trump presidency and after the police killing of George Floyd and other unarmed black people.

Morgan State University, for example, is expecting a record number of first-year students when the new semester starts on August 23. Instead of the usual 1,400 to 1,500 students, about 2,000 new students will be attending, said Kevin Banks, vice president of student affairs. The historically Black institution in Baltimore had to close its student housing waitlist early for the first time as a result.

Incoming students have felt "disconnected, isolated" over the past year of remote learning during the pandemic and now want to be together on campus, Banks said.

"The climate about social justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think has also played a significant role in people looking at our HBCUs as a safe place."

Sophomores at Morgan are also now clamoring for on-campus housing, hoping to recover the more traditional college experience they missed out on last year as first-year students when the campus was closed. Banks said the university hasn't been able to satisfy those requests because of demand by this year's freshmen class.

Peter Galloway, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers - International, said it's as if universities have two freshman classes to accommodate this year, first-year students and "a second-year class that may not have had any experience living on campus" and are "learning all the ropes in terms of a community living environment like a residence hall" for the first time along with the first year students.

Morgan State will house up to 290 students at a local hotel about four miles from the campus to meet the demand for housing. The makeshift dorm will be outfitted with campus-style amenities such as security and tutoring services. A shuttle will take students to and from campus. The university is also building a new residential building to house an additional 670 students that is scheduled to be ready by fall 2022.

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Other universities have gotten creative about addressing their housing shortages and are offering students incentives to live off-campus. The University of Tampa offered students a one-time $2,000 grant if they take their names off the waitlist for student housing and live off-campus this year. Dartmouth University held a lottery open to as many as 200 students on its campus housing waitlist. The lottery winners had the option of getting off the waitlist in exchange for $5,000 prizes. Students who didn't win held onto their spots on the waitlist.

Howard University also expects a large freshman class, approximately 2,300 students compared to 2,241 in fall 2020 and 1,834 in fall 2019. Upperclassmen in particular have been complaining on social media -- using the Twitter hashtag #homelessathoward -- that affordable housing near the university is hard to find and that university housing administrators should come up with more student housing options, The Washington Post reported, though campus officials say the university does not expect a dearth of student housing.

"We do not have a housing shortage, nor are we anticipating one," Tashni-Ann Dubroy, Howard's executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in an email. "The University has never housed 100 percent of its students. Our campus community is aware of this."

She noted that the university housed 50 percent of juniors and 40 percent of seniors who applied for housing and paid their deposits on time this fall. First and second-year students will live on campus. The university also has options for subsidized rent for students living off-campus in two local buildings that mostly house upperclassmen, she said.

Adhering to COVID-19 safety measures and policies has made it even more difficult for colleges to accommodate the extra demand for housing by converting dorm lobbies into rooms, for example, or squeezing more students into dorm rooms, said Lander Medlin, executive vice president of APPA: The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, an organization that represents education facilities professionals. She said more students will also likely request single rooms in order to social distance, and campuses will still need to set aside rooms to isolate students infected with the virus.

"We're not post-covid yet," she said. "We had this wonderful lull and then the Delta variant hit."

Not all institutions have been equally affected. Some colleges and universities are using incentives to fill student residence halls.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania, for example, will offer a $1,000 housing scholarship to students who live in residence halls this year and an additional $1,000 to live on-campus again the following year. Michelle Fryling, executive director of media relations at the university said research shows students living on campus boosts retention rates and academic performance, so the university wanted to make campus housing an affordable option.

"We want to make living on campus more attractive because we think it is a great option for many students," she said. "We know it doesn't work for everyone, but we have the data to prove it's a great way to start your time here and continue your time here."

She also noted that the university refunded students' housing costs when the campus shut down and moved courses online in spring 2020. More students living on campus won't offset that lost revenue, but it will help the university maintain a "strong housing budget."

Indiana University of Pennsylvania has had enrollment declines since its peak of 15,379 students in 2012. Total enrollment in fall 2020 was 10,067 students. The university has not shared enrollment data for fall 2021 but Fryling said the projected number of residential students is "on track." The university has been able to accommodate all requests for individual rooms and personal bathrooms so far and has faced housing surpluses in the past.

Indiana University of Pennsylvania isn't alone. As the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education consolidates six universities into two, the system's chancellor, Dan Greenstein, proposed allocating $12.5 million this year to help pay off debts on campus dorms that institutions have struggled to fill, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported.

Kruger said admitting and enrolling the right number of students to meet the exact capacity of residence halls has always been a "mad science" for colleges and universities and required creative solutions such as converting dorm lounges into bedrooms and assigning three or four students to a room.

Dillard University in New Orleans came up with such a solution after experiencing housing shortages for the last five years. The university now houses a couple hundred students at neighboring Southern University at New Orleans, which used to be a commuter institution and has empty rooms as it rebrands itself as a residential campus, said Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough.

Derek Doucet, dean of students at Middlebury, said recently in an announcement that the college took a "different approach" to curtail the number of students living on campus by offering students incentives to live at Bread Loaf, an off-campus site mostly used for writers' conferences.

" … Our top priority is to provide an in-person educational experience to all active students who wish to be at Middlebury this fall," he said. "Students who live at Bread Loaf will be making a true contribution to that effort" and the college will repay them in "significant new incentives to enhance their experience."

Institutions are also looking to strategies they've used for years, such as public-private partnerships, to address this latest wave of housing shortages and surpluses, Kruger said.

"You try to get these yield rates right, and if you get it perfect, you fill your residence halls to 99.9 percent, but if you miss by a few percentage points, you can have hundreds of students who don't have space or you may have empty spaces," he said. "You don't really have a lot of options. Space is space is space. You either have rooms or you don't have rooms. And if you don't have enough rooms, you've got to find them."

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