Universities Scramble to Find Student Housing

High interest in dorms has forced schools to put hundreds on wait lists and send students to hotels.

New dorms are springing up on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.

New dorms are springing up on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus.

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Unexpectedly high freshman enrollment, housing volatility, and high gas prices have led to a shortage of dorm space at colleges across the country, forcing some schools to pack dorm rooms to the brim and others to set up makeshift living spaces in nearby hotels.

Among the dozens of schools dealing with housing shortages, the University of Massachusetts-Lowell appears to be one of the hardest hit. Dean of Students Larry Siegel says the school is planning to place about 250 students in a hotel about 9 miles from campus and 54 more students in nearby apartment complexes. Colorado State University-Pueblo has arranged with two hotels to house more than 200 students, and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga expects 50 students to start their school year at two downtown hotels.

How the Lowell campus got to where it is involves "a convergence of events," as Siegel puts it, that pretty much demonstrates what is happening around the country. Like many other schools, Lowell was expecting a mild freshman bump but notthe deluge in applications it got. Siegel was expecting 5 to 7 percent growth in the freshman class: Instead, he got 20 percent. Similarly, Louisiana State University has 400 more students—mostly freshmen—living on campus than last year and has turned students away from on-campus housing for what may be the first time ever, LSU Housing Director Steve Waller said. CSU-Pueblo saw a 60 percent increase in the number of its freshmen, and Indiana University and Eastern Carolina University had record freshmen classes, too.

Another factor is a huge influx of upperclassmen who have requested to live in dorms. Seton Hall has seen 20 percent more upperclassmen return to dorms, a bounce that Housing Director Tara Hart partially attributes to swankier amenities, which is a trend nationwide.

Housing officials partially blame the rush to dorm rooms on an unpredictable housing market. High food and gas prices also are factors. Like Lowell, Florida Atlantic University has traditionally been a commuter school. But this year, the school has 500 people on its housing wait list. That list previously had never topped 190 students. "There used to be a cost savings to living at home," Lowell's Siegel said. "Now, if you're commuting a 20 miles a day, that just isn't the case."

Not all schools have turned to hotels. Adelphi University is offering $2,000 incentives for students to drop their housing contracts, and schools like IU and SUNY-Stony Brook are jamming rooms and even dorm lounges with three or four people. Some schools, including Seton Hall and LSU, are offering advice and counseling for students entering the off-campus housing market.

Life for students banished to the outskirts of campus might not turn out to be so bad. Most of the students will be commuting 20-plus minutes by bus or car to class, but they have been offered special amenities by the universities and hotels. CSU-Pueblo students, for example, will get weekly linen changes, daily trash disposal, continental breakfast, and access to exercise equipment and swimming pools, according to CSU. Lowell students can expect similar perks, including the hotel's not-too-shabby full-size beds and fancy TVs.

What about next fall? This year's freshmen class will likely be the largest to come through the system—"a baby boomlet," as Hart describes it—and enrollment is expected to decrease for a while. New dorms are shooting up left and right, and some schools like Seton Hall plan to rejigger their housing application process. Everyone is already planning for fall 2009—and hoping their enrollment predictive models do a better job.