Colleges navigate a student housing crisis driven by shortages of on-campus rooms and surging rents nearby

As the 2022-23 academic year begins, enrollment increases and students’ desire for a traditional, on-campus college experience have driven higher-than-usual demand for on-campus housing at U.S. colleges and universities, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. Students waitlisted for dorm rooms, and those opting for off-campus residences, meanwhile, are facing steep rent increases nationwide, leaving them with few affordable housing options this fall. 

Colleges are exploring a variety of strategies that would reduce barriers to affordable on- and off-campus housing. However, experts worry about disparate college-by-college approaches and about placing the onus on students to track down their own housing and financial support, according to EdSource.

“The notion that tuition and fees is the central problem in higher education often overlooks the other expenses students face, and housing is a massive one,” Justin Ortagus, director of the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Florida, tells The Hechinger Report. Along with tuition costs, housing expenses are the main reason why low-income students drop out of college altogether, Ortagus’s research has found.

Related: COVID-19 intensifying college students’ housing, food insecurity >

Increased demand for on- and off-campus housing 

At some universities, rising enrollment has contributed to long waitlists for on-campus housing. Last year, Florida A&M University (FAMU), an HBCU in Tallahassee, enrolled 524 first-year students; this year it has 1,119. As a result, there are over 500 first-year and transfer students and over 800 upper-level students on FAMU’s waitlist for on-campus housing. 

Students nationwide also are clamoring to have the complete in-person, on-campus immersion. “I’m hearing firsthand from students that they have experienced so much of high school as being online, that they absolutely want to have that full student life experience,” Jack Miner, vice provost for enrollment management at the University of Cincinnati, told Inside Higher Ed. Even many upperclassmen are flocking to on-campus housing, having had remote instruction during the height of the pandemic.

The supply-demand mismatch can be seen at universities nationwide. Despite leaving deposits for on-campus housing, 356 students at University of North Carolina at Charlotte have yet to receive their dorm assignments, The Chronicle reports. Boca Raton’s Florida Atlantic University, unable to house over 800 students, released a statement referring students to off-campus housing, according to Spectrum Bay News 9. However, rents for off-campus housing around Boca Raton have risen 35% since last year and are 66% higher than the national median, according to The Hechinger Report

A time-consuming search

Some students at the University of California at Berkeley are among those scrambling to find off-campus housing. University spokesman Dan Mogulof says the “land-poor, urban-based campus” continues to face a longstanding housing crisis and can guarantee housing only for first-year students. According to real-estate marketplace company Zillow, rents near the university have risen around 9.5% compared to last year.

Related: Colleges, partners step up investments to address housing security

Like many of her peers, Christina Maley, rising senior at UC Berkeley, has struggled to find places to live the last few years amid a constrained, costly housing market. “You have to find roommates, you have to figure out a location, you have to figure out your price. You have to talk to landlords, and you also have to do your research because a lot of the buildings are very old,” she tells The Chronicle. “It’s definitely just a big time consumption.”

Colleges aim to provide additional housing

New construction is one way campuses like UC Berkeley are addressing housing shortages; the university is in the process of doubling its available beds. In Florida, FAMU plans to increase its number of beds from 2,500 to 4,000, and will open a four-building apartment complex with 552 units.

While these types of projects will help meet demand in future years, colleges and universities also are pursuing more immediate solutions, such as placing students at hotels near campus. UNC-Charlotte is offering housing from a mixture of on-campus and off-campus partners to students who applied for on-campus housing, with off-campus housing being run just like on-campus residences.

Following enrollment gains and double-digit rent increases nearby, the University of Utah has seen its waitlist for on-campus housing grow. Among other measures, the university is offering local alumni $5,000 a semester to house students, Inside Higher Ed reports. According to the school’s Office of Alumni Relations, 120 local alumni have already volunteered—and are in the process of being vetted—to host students this fall, and the university hopes to place 1,000 students with local alumni next fall. 

Officials also hope that zoning reform movements in states like California, Oregon, Minnesota, and Washington will permit construction of new housing units for college students in areas previously reserved for single-family residences, Bloomberg reports. 

Related: College students struggling to find affordable housing >

Incentives and assistance

With limited options for on-campus housing, some colleges are offering financial incentives for students willing to pursue off-campus housing, especially students who experience year-round housing insecurity. With rents increasing 53% since last year in Tallahassee, FAMU will give first-year students who live off campus $2,000 per semester for housing and a meal plan valued at $5,716 for the 2022-23 academic year. The university offered the same plan to the first 400 upper-level students who forego their on-campus housing. 

Organizations and advocacy groups are also providing scholarships for college students who need financial support with housing and other living costs, Ed Source reports. Nonprofits including GiveBack and SchoolHouse Connection offer housing scholarships and other emergency funding to students overcoming economic hardship. The Guardian Scholars Foundation, a chapter-based organization that exists on college campuses across the country, is also offering scholarships to college students who were part of the foster care system or have endured other adversity. Students can receive funding for on-campus housing even during winter and summer breaks.

The Horatio Alger Association, a non-profit in Alexandria, Virginia, that provides $17 million in scholarships each year to students experiencing hardship, has begun financing student housing and other basic needs for thousands of recipients through new emergency relief funds, according to The Washington Post. With the association’s help, Sophia Manera, a sophomore at Aurora University and former foster child who experienced housing insecurity throughout her life, is moving into her first apartment in preparation for the fall semester. “It’s a huge relief,” she says, “to know that I have somewhere to study, somewhere to just be, and I know it won’t be absolute chaos.”

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