Coping With the Crunch

Living on campus at the University of Dayton in Ohio is popular with students -- after all, every student desk in the dorm is wired for an Internet connection, which allows them to take advantage of the learning-teaching process on the university’s network.

This news is a mixed blessing for the university’s assistant vice president for student development/director of residential services, Joe Belle. First- and second-year students must live in university housing, but the upgraded rooms mean juniors and seniors vie for these accommodations as well -- something the large private university can’t always handle.

Belle’s colleagues from coast to coast empathize. A decade ago, administrators were scratching their heads, wondering how to fill their residence halls. Today everyone is either building or renovating everything they can get their hands on to accommodate the students lined up for living space. New bricks and mortar seem only to exacerbate the situation, they report, as the halo effect drives reservations still higher.

Take Chuck Lamb’s dilemma: The director of residential life and university housing at Binghamton University in New York added 148 beds and watched housing enrollment skyrocket 11 percent -- the worst overcrowding he’s seen in the past six years. Of the university’s 10,000 undergraduates, approximately half opted to live on campus. “Some universities reach a cap, and they turn students away. We don’t do that,” Lamb maintains.

Neither does Dale Tampke, director of assessment at Ohio University in Athens, a philosophy that led to 45 homeless students on his doorstep last fall. “Why did you keep sending out contracts?” the student newspaper reporters drilled him. He found himself explaining what most housing directors realize: This numbers game isn’t a precise science.

Anticipating Demand

“Whenever admissions numbers tell me every bed is reserved as school starts, I can count on two things,” says Roger Fisher, currently the director of residential services at Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, with 35 years of experience at North Carolina State, Ball State, Iowa State and University of Missouri. “One, some people will never show up, and two, a percentage will drop out in the first three weeks. Unfortunately, we don’t know which student housing assignments are in these categories.”

Fisher’s sorting process begins with proper communication. He studies previous patterns to determine drop-out formulas and percentages. And he works one-on-one with the frontline residence advisors and hall directors to gather rumors on potential no-shows. “We don’t wait until classes start a week later and another department issues an official list with names circled,” he notes. “We get on the phone to try to confirm it before the room sits empty.”

Proactive housing directors also communicate potential space shortages in advance to students and their families. “There’s nothing worse than having them drive up and then find out exactly what is available,” Fisher says. In fact, Allen Blattner, director of residence life at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., makes it a point to invite all families to tour his temporary solutions as a calming measure.

“When people hear ‘lounge’ they think, ‘Oh, they’ve converted this closet space.’ Reality is much more reassuring,” he says. It also provides an opportunity to demonstrate that you have a better twist on the following common overcrowding solutions.

Tripling

Adding a third student to a room provides a quick and often inexpensive solution. The down side is that, not only do you disappoint the latecomer, you also ask two roommates to sacrifice. It’s a faux pas Tampke avoids; in his experience, the housing crunch will disappear long before the hard feelings this creates.

Belle tackles this tangle by offering an upfront $500 rate reduction for anyone who selects tripling -- a move that allows compatible students to choose their own roomies as well. Next he designates a specific residence hall -- naturally the one with the largest room square footage -- as the home for tripling options, communicating to students who choose those quarters that a little extra sharing for a few weeks might be the added price for these larger rooms throughout the year. And, he advises, plan to purchase modern desk furnishings, which are configured more conveniently to accommodate three in a space, to replace clunky ‘60s throwbacks.

Lamb, too, offered to release Binghamton students from their housing contract to avoid tripling, but with few takers. In that case it became last come, first crammed. Eventually, all housing directors say this attitude works, as long as they present it with compassion that avoids character judgment. “Most students realize if they show up at the ticket window an hour before the football game, they won’t get to buy tickets on the 50-yard line. Ditto housing,” says Tampke.

Lounge Conversion

Blattner gathered a panel of students to solicit input after Allegheny College’s first bout with overcrowding. They listed tripling dead last among their recommendations. “Frankly, I wasn’t sure how they’d view our taking their lounge space; that’s where they study, hold group meetings and socialize. But they gave us a green light to convert it to sleeping space,” he says. He keeps those suggestions close at hand as 1,450 of the college’s 1,900 students request campus housing -- a 70 percent residential make-up Blattner’s trustees would like to increase to 85 or 90 percent.

Today many Allegheny students equate lounge assignments with a winning lottery ticket. These spaces are the only spots on campus wired for cable, a bonus their peers envy. The newest furniture outfits this space. Blattner also insists on right-sizing the rooms, refusing to load in four students when three fit comfortably.

“We consider the lounge space their room for the year if they want it,” he says. “True, it’s a double-edged sword for us -- we’d like the community space returned. But these students get comfortable and make friends with the students on that floor,” he says. “We don’t want to hit them with a double whammy: You’ve been offered different housing, and you have to move away in two weeks. We’re committed to the students’ well-being.”

If projections indicate early on he’ll need lounges, Blattner offers this to his upper-class students in a random lottery pool. If the shift occurs in the summer after these established students picked their rooms, he refers to the freshmen’s lifestyle preference sheets to determine likes, dislikes and compatible habits. “But I’d prefer the upperclassmen live here,” he says bluntly. “Freshmen need that traditional one-roommate scenario they’ve always envisioned.”

Fisher, on the other hand, stocks his temporary lounge spaces with inexpensive dressers and bunk beds, the emphasis strong on sharing. In his opinion, administrators should consider the lounge and tripling options a short-term, three-week-maximum solution. “If you’re not careful, you create second-class citizens among these students,” he says.

Hotel Hospitality

A majority of housing directors boo the notion of reserving rooms at a local hotel: These students are too isolated emotionally and physically, the university must shoulder transportation costs, the transient nature of other guests is a bad influence and sometimes parents have booked all the available space to move in their offspring.

Fisher rises above the objections. “It beats mobile homes,” he says. “Portable housing tends to overstay its welcome by years instead of weeks, and students treat it with utter disrespect so the maintenance bills eventually eat you out of house and home,” he ticks off. Hotel rooms say temporary and mean it. The first trick is to negotiate group rates in the summer before you suspect a housing overload, building in an escape clause. Second, deal only with reputable, upscale facilities. “More expensive means better managed, better maintained and safer. Anything less is a public relations disaster,” Fisher maintains. “By renting space that costs the university more than we’re charging them, I tell my students and their families that TCU honors its commitment to them.”

Creative Spaces

Though the strategies discussed above are by far the most common, savvy facilities directors have devised other creative possibilities as well.

- Tampke converted individual study rooms scattered throughout Ohio University’s campus into dorm rooms. These spaces required a door lock system and phone lines -- a critical addition for temporaries, because displaced students need to contact parents and friends who can’t locate them, he points out.

- Lamb installed showers, laundry facilities and carpeted classrooms in a vacant nursing school building. The conversion took two weeks, and made 35 students happier for the effort.

- Blattner opts to double-up single rooms, which reduces the number of solo spaces on one hand but creates far fewer personality clashes than tripling. In this same vein, Fisher occasionally requests that resident advisors scoot over to make room for a student in their spaces as well.

- Keep an eye peeled and stall, sums up Blattner. He arranges to leave houses standing as long as possible on grounds Allegheny College purchases to satisfy its campus master plan, the better to rely on them as overflow housing units. He has also taken advantage of abandoned fraternity houses, and juggled demolition wrecking crews to his benefit when one Greek system built new quarters. When occupancy jumps from 96 percent to 105 percent, anything is fair game, to his thinking.

Of course, there’s one question everyone refuses to address. “Please don’t ask me the definition of temporary,” Lamb begs.

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