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Questions Linger About Housing College Students This Fall

Clockwise from top left: Campus Apartments' Mark Schundler, WDG's Bob Keane, Greystar's Julie Skolnicki, Aptitude Development's Jared Hutter and Newmark Knight Frank's Ryan Lang.

The only thing certain about the college housing market is that no one is sure what's going to happen this fall, given the coronavirus pandemic's unpredictable nature.

Though more than 700 universities have indicated they will be opening their campuses to students in some fashion, it remains unclear how that is going to look.  

For one thing, colleges aren't sure how many international students will be returning to campus and how many participants in canceled study-abroad programs will be seeking housing.

"It's truly a moving target so anything that I say today may change tomorrow," Greystar Senior Managing Director of University Partnerships Julie Skolnicki said on a June 30 Bisnow webinar on student housing. "Notre Dame was the first we heard the report that they were going to open early, get rid of fall break, and then really transition that campus schedule after Thanksgiving to either finals or online."

Colleges need to house students in dormitories, crowded even under the best of circumstances, to provide the experience students are looking for while adhering to safety guidelines.

Approaches include "de-densifying" housing, getting rid of dorm arrangements where three and sometimes four students share living accommodation. According to Skolnicki, Northeast schools are "taking about 20% of their beds offline" because the region was a hot spot for the coronavirus. Some colleges are making housing arrangements for students with private landlords.

"Universities are clearly trying to hold onto their on-campus beds as best that they can," Aptitude Development co-founder Jared Hutter said.

He said he expects the return to campus to be a disaster.

"Everyone is making plans. No one has a clue what's going to happen. No one on this panel really knows. There's not a scientist out there that knows. I think it's a day by day crazy thing that's happening."

As a result, Hutter is trying to "prepare for every possible scenario."

Even if the housing follows safety guidelines, there is no guarantee the students will cooperate.

"We're really talking about the behavior of undergraduate students," said Bob Keane, managing principal and director of higher education at WDG Architecture. "These are smart young adults, but they're young." 

Colleges, however, are facing considerable financial pressure to open their doors. The expected losses from the decline in international students alone could hit $3B. A recent survey by the nonprofit Institute of International Education found that 90% of colleges expect fewer students from overseas to enroll in the fall. International students are an important revenue source for colleges since they usually pay the full tuition rate.