College administrators and housing directors regularly tout the benefits of on-campus living, in an effort to lure more students away from privately owned houses and apartment buildings. Many officials believe housing students on campus improves student life, and they are quick to cite studies that find these students are more likely to succeed academically. Despite these arguments, it used to be a struggle for some institutions to interest students in on-campus housing.
Now, in what some administrators see as a possible response to the recent downturn in the U.S. economy, some of these same institutions cannot keep up with the rising demand of upperclassmen who want to live on campus for a more practical purpose: to save money. While it is too early to tell whether the economy is to blame for this newfound demand, some campus administrators find that it exacerbates an already strained housing system.
This boom comes at a time when many colleges and universities are welcoming larger-than-average freshman classes, most of whom typically require housing. The challenge for these institutions then becomes which group of students to serve, underclassmen or upperclassmen. Anecdotally, institutions such as John Carroll, Bryant and Emory Universities, among others, are reporting that demand for on-campus housing exceed supply, and that most of the unanticipated requests are coming from juniors and seniors.
The rising tide of upperclassmen seeking to live in on-campus housing has caught the interest of the Association of College & University Housing Officers–International . The organization discussed, as part of its annual 2008 conference held in Orlando this week, how to accommodate this growing demand. James Baumann, ACUHO-I’s director of communications and marketing, said he and the organization’s member institutions have taken note of the increase in upperclassmen living on campus. There is an attempt, he said, to balance occupancy among all students who desire space, regardless of their academic year, at insititutions currently not equipped to meet this new demand.
Some colleges have even gone as far as offering financial incentives to freshmen who choose, for example, to live three to a double-occupancy room. This may be represented in an overall discount on annual room and board expenses. Additionally, others have had to convert previously common or storage areas into livable space.
Both are the case at John Carroll University , in University Heights, Ohio, which has an undergraduate enrollment of about 3,000. For the first time in 10 years, John Carroll’s residence halls are over capacity, according to Tonya Strong-Charles, director of media relations there. In particular, John Carroll has seen a stronger interest in on-campus housing for upperclassmen than in recent years. Almost 65 percent of the university’s undergraduates live on campus, said Doreen Riley, vice president for university advancement, adding that she expects this number to grow as the university offers more housing. To explain the boom, Riley listed the everyday concerns of her students.
“Reasons we’ve heard from upperclassmen are cost and budgeting,” Riley said, noting that the rising cost of off-campus living has brought some students back to campus. “With utilities, gas prices and rising food costs, by the time you pay rent, that’s a lot of money.”
Other small, private institutions are feeling the housing squeeze as well. Bryant University  in Smithfield, R.I., has had to find creative ways to house freshmen so that it can retain space for its upperclassmen. J. Thomas Eakin, vice president for student affairs there, said when housing reached capacity for the first time three years ago, the university negotiated with a local motel to provide space for about 30 students. In the past decade, the number of upperclassmen opting to live on campus has risen from 82 to 87 percent. This growth, Eakin said, is representative of the high retention rate of freshmen in the housing program. During the same period, the proportion of freshman choosing to live on campus grew from 90 to 97 percent.
The “bubble” of students choosing to stay on campus, as he refers to the recent spike in freshman retention, has made the housing of upperclassmen an issue. More of these students eventually want the experience of living on campus in what Eakin said are highly sought-after senior townhouses, imitating the off-campus experience on campus.
“Lots of students who could commute from home want the total experience,” said Eakin, who is not entirely persuaded that changes in the economy solely account for increased upperclass interest in on-campus housing. “There is no question that the cost of driving back and forth is going to be an issue. You can buy a lot of gas for what it costs for room and board. A lot of what you’re seeing was well under way before the squeeze we’re in now, but with energy costs and heating going up, that could certainly drive people back to campus.”
In urban areas, where there is often more off-campus competition for student housing, some colleges are still seeing a spike in upperclass interest in campus housing. Emory University , in Atlanta, with an undergraduate enrollment under 7,000, continues to maintain a long waiting list of upperclassmen and women hoping to live on campus, according to Andy Wilson, director of residence life there. Sixty-eight percent of undergraduates live on campus. A majority of upperclassmen chose university housing, contributing to this figure. Like many of its peer institutions, Emory has more demand for housing than it can supply. Wilson said his office receives regular correspondences from juniors and seniors hoping to making it off the waiting list, something he said did not use to be the case five or six years ago.
“We’re very candid that we don’t guarantee housing, but our students really want that [on-campus] community,” said Wilson of those on the wait list. “We’re hearing from students who don’t want to commute because of gas prices. Our pricing is pretty competitive with off-campus housing, so all things being equal, students want to come back to the community.”
While public colleges typically house fewer students on campus than their private counterparts, some have to respond to a similar demand for more housing, even when they are not heavily marketing additional housing. Georgia Southern University , in Statesboro, has created a market for on-campus housing in a community where students can find private housing very easily, according to Vickie Hawkins, director of university housing. This year, she said, the university purchased and renovated an aging off-campus building to house more upperclassmen. Even before changes were made to the building, students filled up the unit, in addition to the rest of university housing, in three days.
“Students have said that with gas prices at $4 a gallon, [they] are going to rethink how they’re using their vehicle,” Hawkins said, noting that this, in addition to convenience and safety, has further driven interest. “On-campus housing is marketing itself.”
The trend, for some, is seen as a natural progression for public institutions, trying to match the full-time living and learning environment offered by many privates. The Massachusetts State College Building Authority , which manages on-campus housing at nine colleges, has 105 percent occupancy at its facilities, according to its executive director, Ed Adelman. The extra 5 percent constitute re-appropriated space such as study lounges converted into large sleeping rooms. He said this growth does not represent an increase in enrollment as much as it does an increase in the interest of students who are already enrolled. Upperclassmen value community in on-campus housing, Adelman said, but financial considerations play a role as well.
“We’re seeing it across the nation,” Adelman said. “Students want to live on campus. The retention from the first year to the second and persistence toward graduation is greater than those who commute. We’re certainly seeing it at the nine campuses we support. There are a lot of avoided costs for students who live on campus.”