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Five fans of different colors blow breeze around a desk cluttered with school supplies, laptops, papers and books.

Many students, restricted from using a portable AC of any kind, keep multiple fans blowing in their rooms to try to keep cool during heat waves.

Photo illustration by Justin Morrison/Inside Higher Ed | Getty Images | Rawpixel

As residents of the small burg of Wayne, Neb., slogged through a four-day heat advisory late last month, most of the students at Wayne State College stayed cool in their air-conditioned dorms. But it was a different story for the roughly 33 percent who live in the two dorms on campus without AC—which also lack the electrical infrastructure for window units or other portable air conditioners. Those students survived by cooling their rooms with fans and ice and even sleeping in air-conditioned common rooms alongside dozens of other residents.

“During the big heat wave, they had the student center open 24-7 so people could sleep on the floor in there,” said Millie Jenik, a freshman. “There were people sleeping in the lobby. One dude was passed out on the pool table.”

Jenik and her roommate kept two fans blowing constantly in their room—a practice they uphold even now that the heat wave is over. She said she hasn’t slept with her comforter since she moved in Aug. 18.

Record-Setting Heat

Many college dorms lack air-conditioning—and not just at smaller institutions like Wayne State. Public flagships including the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Maryland both have a substantial number of rooms on campus without AC, as do elite private institutions such as Boston, Yale and Cornell Universities.

Retrofitting older dorms with air-conditioning can be pricey. Plus, administrators say, depending on location, students typically only have to deal with a few weeks to a month of summer weather each academic year.

But that argument is becoming obsolete as climate change makes summers hotter and longer. In many U.S. cities, this past summer was the hottest since recordkeeping began, according to research by the nonprofit Climate Central, and 2023 is projected to be the hottest year ever recorded worldwide.

For many, that makes air-conditioning seem less like a luxury than a necessity. Carol Ott, tenant advocacy director for Economic Action Maryland, has long pushed for air-conditioning to be considered an “essential service” that all landlords are required to supply for their tenants under Maryland law.

“It’s important, because [some] people have health conditions that are exacerbated by heat,” she said. “The humidity … not only makes the heat feel even worse, but humidity … can even cause structural issues. Dampness can cause structural issues; it can destroy your furniture. There’s a lot more to it than ‘I’m hot and I’m uncomfortable.’”

In Wayne County, the heat index, a metric that combines air temperature and humidity to approximate how hot it feels to humans, was 109 degrees or higher for four days in a row from Aug. 20 to Aug. 24. At one point, the heat index hit 118 degrees—the highest since 2005, which is the furthest back the data for the area goes, according to Paul Fajman, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service Omaha.

Jay Collier, director of college relations for WSC, said that the university went “above and beyond” to support students who didn’t have air-conditioning; among other things, staff organized movie nights for students camping out in air-conditioned residence hall common areas. The college also deployed security to monitor what Collier called the “slumber parties” in the student center and common areas, ensuring students felt safe sleeping among so many strangers.

It wasn’t a perfect solution—Jenik reported that her friends who slept in the student center came away with backaches—but it kept students cool through the heat wave.

Other universities have taken similar steps. Quentin Hoglund, a student at the University of Maryland and a resident assistant in one of the un–air-conditioned halls, told Inside Higher Ed that students were given swipe access to air-conditioned residence halls. They were also allowed to sleep in the basement of one of those halls, but the lack of privacy, he said, made for “not really that welcoming of an environment.”

“There were a couple of complaints about safety, because at that point you’re basically living in a hostel,” he said.

Boston University, meanwhile, declined to offer students alternative places to sleep when temperatures soared recently, because the National Weather Service did not declare a heat advisory for the Massachusetts capital, Colin Riley, BU’s executive director of media relations, wrote in an email.

Installing AC

Institutions are increasingly committed to providing air-conditioning for all students going forward. By the beginning of 2025, no Wayne State student should have to live in a dorm without AC, Collier said; one dorm will be renovated to add new electrical hardware and a window AC unit to each room, while the other is being replaced by a new building.

The college previously added air-conditioning to another residence, Anderson Hall, five years ago. Officials are still figuring out how much it will cost to do the same for the AC-free Morey Hall; based on the price of the prior improvements and the current inflation rate, they estimate it will total between $250,000 and $270,000.

There’s no easy and cost-effective way to air-condition every room on campus, Collier said.

“It’s prohibitively expensive to build residence halls these days,” he said. “It really is quite the undertaking and quite the expense … the past three years, with expenses being what they have been and all the other things that we’re called upon to do, where do you start sometimes?”

Ott noted that there are energy-efficient, cost-saving methods for installing and powering air conditioners that can help lower the price for strapped colleges.

“Particularly for dorm buildings, we should be looking at things like solar energy. If we’re truly concerned about the cost, we should be looking at more climate-friendly energy sources,” she said. “There are more ways to implement things like air-conditioning, certainly, than when a lot of those dorms were built.”

She stressed that if colleges really care about keeping students comfortable in their dorms, they need to put in the time and energy to consider how best to afford improvements like AC.

“I think now is a really good time, in particular, for large institutions like universities to be having these conversations and building these things into their annual budgets and capital improvement plans,” she said.

BU plans to add air-conditioning to its largest residential buildings without AC, Warren Towers, a complex of three towers that contains nearly 1,800 rooms in total, in the near future. The renovation is part of the Institutional Master Plan, Riley said, but there is no set timeline in place yet.

And UMD is looking into finally renovating buildings to add air-conditioning, according to Hoglund, who is the vice president of the Residence Hall Association, the student government for on-campus students.

A spokesperson for the university did not respond to a question about these renovations.

But Hoglund noted that even if UMD installs air-conditioning in the coming years, it does nothing to help current students suffering in the early September heat, which just last week dropped to the low 80s.

“I love studying in my room. I love hanging out in my room. I’ve really put in the effort to make my room feel like home,” he said. “Now it’s gotten to the point that I don’t even want to be in my own room.”

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