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Colleges Don't Yet Know How To Reopen Their Student Housing Facilities

As colleges prepare to reopen their campuses as the coronavirus pandemic starts to ebb, they are trying to figure out how to provide housing to students that won’t further the worst health crisis in more than a century.

A student housing building in Philadelphia near Drexel University.

Social distancing may be difficult, if not impossible, in college dormitories since students are cramped under the best of circumstances since they often sleep in bunk beds and shared bathrooms and amenities like study areas.

“Most universities are taking measures to de-densify, including offering single rooms for students with underlying health conditions, moving away from triple-occupancy rooms and reserving swing space for students who may need to isolate,” said Trina Rogers, senior vice president of CoStar’s Off Campus Partners, an online marketplace for off-campus housing listings. 

Further complicating the student housing picture is the fate of the international students, who may be reluctant to return to campus.

Nearly 90% of colleges and universities expect fewer students from overseas to enroll in the fall, according to a recent survey by the nonprofit Institute of International Education.

International students are an essential revenue stream for U.S. colleges, since they usually pay full tuition rates. According to Inside Higher Education, about 36% of universities rated by Moody’s rely on international students for more than 10% of their total revenue. Colleges could lose $3B from the expected drop in enrollment from students from overseas, according to another survey.

Colleges aren’t sure how best to respond to an unprecedented situation.

“We are examining many different models to determine how our residential buildings could safely accommodate the number of students we might have living on campus this fall,” Sarah McDonnell, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote in an email. “It would be premature to start making decisions on housing configurations before knowing the status of our academic programs or before knowing how many undergraduate and graduate students might be on campus.” 

MIT, which has 11,250 students, expects to decide on its housing for the fall in late June or early July. 

Officials at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel University and Temple University all are weighing their options on student housing ahead of their fall semesters. None would provide details on their plans, which are being developed by campus-wide task forces.

More than 6,000 of Penn’s 26,675-person student body reside in the residence halls at Penn’s campus in West Philadelphia. The Ivy League school requires that most first-year students live in a dormitory and buy a meal plan because the “residential experience is an integral part of the Penn experience,”  according to its website.

Drexel and Temple also encourage students to live on campus during their first year in college. Drexel has a student body of 24,190. Enrollment at Temple tops 39,000.

CA Student Living, which operates housing units at more than two dozen campuses, including Penn and Drexel, is reaching out to college administrators offering to partner with them to house students who may not be able to find accommodations on campus.

Michael Hales, the president of CA Student Living, said the company has offered to provide colleges a “master lease agreement” where the institution would rent rooms in the company’s buildings. It also is looking at less formal arrangements, such as becoming a preferred vendor.

The Massachusetts Landlords Association recently found, through a random sample on Craigslist, more than 500 “Roommates Wanted” ads, according to Executive Director Doug Quattrochi. Given the state’s eviction moratorium, landlords are twice as likely to keep a unit vacant rather than rent to a high-risk tenant than they were before the coronavirus pandemic.

“Some landlords who rent to the college market rent about 12 months in advance, so they are all set,” Quattrochi said in an interview. “Others maybe are holding rents steady. I don’t know anyone who has dropped rents yet.”

Related Topics: temple university, Trina Rogers