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It's the end of summer, and residents of college towns across the country are bracing themselves for the onslaught. Within a few weeks, the population of my town will more than double. Our now peaceful streets will be clogged with cars and bicycles. The gentle sounds of cicadas and chirping birds will be replaced by student parties and the deep bass from students’ cars. Lawns and sidewalks will become adorned with discarded furniture, moving boxes and empty beer cans. The local police will begin their annual patrol for underage drinking and noise violations.

Thus continues another academic cycle. But one aspect is sorely underreported and widely misunderstood by observers of contemporary higher education: the story of off-campus student housing.

As mayor of the college town of Oxford, Ohio, as well as a 25-year resident of the town and a professor at Miami University, I have seen the breadth of this topic, particularly in my past six years serving on city council and two years as mayor. The problems of off-campus housing are comparative in seriousness to any other crucial issue concerning college campuses and municipalities and speak directly to the relationship of higher education institutions to their communities.

Two-thirds of all college students live in off-campus housing. They live in large groups in old family houses; in smaller groups in refitted apartments in such houses; in modern apartment complexes complete with swimming pools, mini theaters, exercise rooms and party clubhouses; in rooming houses where they rent individual rooms; and in modern condos that they or their parents buy for the duration of their college career.  Students choose to live near their gym, their lab or the local strip of college bars. In many college towns, like my own, they live in densely populated regions of town where virtually all of their neighbors are their peers -- living, partying and enjoying a community of their own making.

At many colleges and universities, students live off campus their entire four years. At others, like the one where I work, residency requirements keep students on the campus for their first two years, and then they are all but required to live off campus. Due to the shortage of residence hall housing, there simply is no room for juniors and seniors. Those students, who have spent two years under the watchful eye of trained student affairs hall directors, are now sent out to sign their own lease, do their own housekeeping, uphold the law and learn how to live with neighbors. 

And they do this largely on their own, joining a century-long tradition of higher education neglect.

This phenomenon is not new: American college students have always lived off campus. Indeed, well through the mid-20th century, most college students did, as few institutions had the economic capacity to develop residence halls. Furthermore, the concept of college as a total institution of social and personal growth did not exist. Only with enrollment booms in the years after World War II did most colleges develop purposeful on-campus residential programs, aided in large part by increased state and federal funding for housing and by the emerging student affairs profession.

As on-campus residence life programming increased, colleges and universities largely ignored the many students who still lived off the campus to the extent that in 1959, the newly organized Association of College and University Housing Officers called off-campus housing "the neglected stepchild of university life." The 1960s and ’70s saw an explosion of off-campus housing, due to high interest rates and decreasing state and federal funding that led to the virtual freezing of residence-hall construction, and students’ increased interest in social freedom. As students flooded the local housing markets, universities developed a tricky dance of claiming that off-campus housing was not their responsibility, even if they provided recommendations and guidance for housing rentals through small off-campus housing offices.

Myriad Issues

Today, off-campus housing remains largely a neglected stepchild, raising a legion of issues, circling around the main question of institutional responsibility beyond the campus. Who supervises students in an environment designed for limited adult supervision? What is the legal and moral responsibility of the institution over the student who attends class on campus but lives in private housing off campus? Who should bear the cost of city services such as garbage pickup and police and emergency services demanded of high-density off-campus student neighborhoods, particularly as the institution’s property is tax-exempt?

In a college town, one of the most contentious community issues is the saturation of the housing market with student-oriented housing at the expense of family and moderate-income housing. Common concerns in my community include the deterioration of lovely old homes now packed with student renters and the increased litter and noise in high-student-density areas. In recent years, large for-profit student housing development corporations have entered college towns to take advantage of broad zoning codes to build housing that is by definition "single family" but designed with college students as the primary audience (small bedrooms, small kitchen, large living room and youth-oriented services like weight rooms, pools and buses to the campus). My city’s housing market is unnaturally shaped for college students: a four-bedroom house often lists its rents by semester, and a single room in that unit may cost as much as $1,000 a month.

In addition, off-campus house parties have become a significant health and safety issue in college towns. While bars are considered the favored coin of the realm of college drinking, huge and unsupervised house parties have proven to be more dangerous and costly in human life as well as institutional reputation.

The increasing danger of off-campus house parties may be the crisis that lurches colleges and universities into paying more attention to off-campus life. According to the National Institutes of Health, almost 2,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die every year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including car crashes. While the national data do not distinguish location, a simple search of news sources reveals that many student tragedies happen at unsupervised off-campus parties (including an increasing number of shootings, stabbings and serious injuries from party brawls).

While such behavior on campuses leads to strong administrative responses, off-campus student behavior is largely left to city first responders to manage: after all, legal violations in the city are the city’s responsibility, whoever the violator is. Although students are held accountable for off-campus actions under federal guidelines, such as the 1990 Clery Act, and many college and university codes of conduct, the organization and supervision of off-campus student housing remains legally tenuous. Institutions are often hesitant to get involved with the off-campus housing process for fear of appearing to endorse off-campus properties, thereby putting the institution at risk for liability or appearing to favor any particular landlord.

In staffing matters, too, institutions maintain a hands-off attitude. At my university, the off-campus office consists of a single staff member, half of whose time is assigned to other duties in student affairs. That person helps 8,000 students coordinate their off-campus housing, while the on-campus residence life offices that supervises the other 8,000 students who live on the campus consists of 12 full-time professionals, plus residence hall assistants and full-time directors in each residence hall.

The work of off-campus housing staff is more than just managing housing issues for students but also involves reaching across the institution and the community, working with the student judicial and health and wellness offices, campus security and local police, city officials, landlords, and lawyers and psychologists.

Fortunately, colleges and towns have begun to address what many see as the Wild West of off-campus housing. At the annual International Town and Gown Association meeting earlier this summer, over 200 institutional and city representatives from college towns across North America and England met for three days at the University of Oregon to pick one another's brains for strategies for addressing these and other problems.  

Some suggested common strategies specifically for off-campus housing issues include:

  • Back-to-school walkabouts when community members and local police visit off-campus housing with information about parking, garbage, safety and residential courtesy.
  • Off-campus housing webpages hosted by the university that provide advice to students as they prepare to move off campus, including education in tenant rights and city safety codes.
  • Party registration practices where off-campus party hosts might receive donated water and snacks and a pass from the police on their first violation in exchange for preliminary training in health and safety measures.  
  • Community ambassador programs such as a joint "party patrols" of student and community volunteers to visit off-campus parties, offering advice, an adult face and ideally a calming presence at parties that often surge to hundreds of students and are fueled by free drugs and alcohol. Some universities identify off-campus student senators who provide neighborhoods with information about theft prevention and housing safety, and sponsor ice cream socials for permanent residents and local renters to meet.
  • Rezoned neighborhoods that adjoin the university to higher density, with specific guidelines to encourage student housing to concentrate in certain neighborhoods, leaving other areas free for the development of single-family home ownership.

The challenges that off-campus housing raise for both institutions and college towns can only be solved by the development of positive relationships between the college or university and the city. Both formal and informal arrangements ease some of this strain: some universities, like my own, make PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) payments for a specific city need -- for example, an ambulance or fire truck -- and share expenses on town-gown events and staff. In our city, university employees pay a city income tax that contributes to the bulk of the city budget.

In fact, the relationship between Oxford and Miami University is becoming a model of best practices. As mayor, I work closely with the university president on issues of student conduct, economic development of the city and other partnerships. We have nurtured an active town-gown team, with a core group consisting of the city department heads and university deans and directors, focused on building relationships between the city and the university. The group expands to include participants from our local hospital, school district, chamber of commerce and university athletics department, as well as the city and university police forces.

A significant result of our work is what we call the Good Neighbor Policy for students who live in the city. It links police reports with the dean of students so that, after continued violations of city ordinances, students must meet with city and university officials and a community member to discuss the challenges of off-campus living and design solutions. Some of those are as simple as directing students to the local hardware store to buy more garbage cans or to designate a house member to monitor a party’s noise level. In such meetings, students often express relief for some guidance, as student house parties can easily get out of control and prove costly to the hosts who might have originally just wanted a few friends to come over to socialize.

The work of town-gown relations recognizes that the presence of students in off-campus housing extends the boundary of the campus in ways that city and college policy and law are still trying to formulate. Both entities share a role in reframing the story of off-campus housing, which cuts to the heart of the purpose of higher education: how to educate young adults in independent and responsible living inside and outside the classroom and campus.

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