Housing crunch sends colleges scrambling to find space for students

Overbooked for the fall and out of residences, institutions are turning to hotels and even other colleges to add rooms.

“Be flexible. Be patient.”

That was the advice given recently to students by the Housing and Educational Services team at the University of California at Santa Cruz, which like so many institutions is facing a residential crisis on its campus this fall. From the Golden State to the Sunshine State and just about everywhere in between—Utah, Tennessee, Nevada, North Carolina—there are shortages facing frustrated students who are being waitlisted or told their housing offers are no longer valid.

While some overbooked institutions such as the University of Tennessee are finding space by taking over hotels like the Holiday Inn Express, room has run out at other state publics. At Florida Atlantic University, for example, campus space is filled to capacity, and one-bedroom off-campus rentals in posh Boca Raton—if you can find them—are going for $2,000 per month or more.

At FAU, where first-year students and those from outside South Florida are getting prioritized over locals, and at Santa Cruz, housing and student affairs teams have had to send out letters recently to break the disappointing news to families.

“Demand for on-campus housing remains extremely high and exceeds remaining availability,” Sue Matthews, associate vice chancellor for Colleges, Housing and Educational Services at UC Santa Cruz wrote to the community. “Unfortunately, we will not be able to offer housing assignments to every student who wishes to live on campus. Because so few on-campus housing options remain available, all students on the general waitlist should work to confirm off-campus housing as soon as possible.”

Santa Cruz, in fact, is offering a renters workshop training session to help students maximize searches, as well as leaning on a Places4Students.com website for those seeking off-campus living quarters. “We are reaching out to local landlords, encouraging them to list their available properties,” Matthews said. “Viewing of rental listings and roommate profiles is restricted to UCSC affiliates so this is a great resource for all UCSC students.”

Although the potential for increased enrollments and students returning to campus is a blessing for institutions still recovering from the pandemic, the lack of housing is clearly turning off some. One alum on Twitter noted, “I’m all for my university & alma mater growing but they are doing it without proper investment, including enough housing.” At Florida A&M, reports of heavy backlash from families of more than 500 freshmen and transfers who were told they would not have housing prompted the university to reach into emergency coffers to fork over $4,000 per student to help them with apartment space, along with meal-plan money. That housing outlay, however, may not cover the full cost of a one-bedroom apartment ($950-$1,200 per month) for the academic year in Tallahassee.

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“I hope this initiative sends a strong message to students and their parents that we really want them to attend this university, and if they are struggling with the financial piece, we think this infusion of support will go a long way in helping them address that,” FAMU President Larry Robinson said recently. At FAMU and other Historically Black Colleges and Universities, ensuring housing for students has become a hot topic, especially given that 55% of students who attend them are housing insecure.

Getting creative

Reports from news media in cities across the United States highlight individual accounts of students having their housing denied, struggling to find affordable rental properties and even facing potential homelessness. At the University of Arkansas, where capacity on campus has been reached and first-time enrollment has jumped by nearly 1,000 students year over year, local agency McCoy Real Estate tweeted out this possibility for those who are forced into off-campus spaces: “With housing short for Razorback students, consider buying a house for your out-of-state student attending the University of Arkansas. Between appreciation and rental of extra bedrooms, you may come out ahead.” In Boca Raton, however, even a one-bed condo can cost $200,000 or more, so couch-surfing with friends or staying home with mom or dad might be the only option.

With space at a premium, the past few years institutions have been reaching out to hotels for help and beyond what was needed during the pandemic for isolation and quarantine.

  • The University of Tennessee not only is partnering with a local Holiday Inn Express but effectively will be running operations there, providing perhaps more amenities than exist in dorms, such as housekeeping, on-site laundry and flat-screen televisions in its 134 rooms.
  • The University of North Carolina at Charlotte is offering similar temporary accommodations at a hotel for a little over 300 students, hoping to get all of its students into housing at some point during the year. It is also planning to provide shuttle services as needed.
  • The University of Iowa is reopening a residence hall that it closed five years ago to accommodate the influx of students. It is also temporarily converting its residence hall lounges in several buildings into six-person dorms.

Institutions are also partnering with other universities for relief. The University of Utah recently forged a five-year sublease arrangement with Westminster College wherein it will run an apartment complex called The Draw that features more than 160 units. Although not on campus, convenient public transportation nearby can take students there. The university reports that it is set to welcome its largest-ever class, forcing it to explore other options for students. In the next two years, the U is planning to open expansions of current properties or new ones. The housing situation at Utah State University, however, is not as positive, as some students in line for nearby campus apartment spaces are being told their complex will not be done in time.

Nearly every market in the country is touting itself as either high-priced or high-demand, from Boca to Boise, where the housing crunch may not be alleviated at the state university until a new dorm is completed in three years. Like Boise State and the universities in Utah, many are hoping to solve residential problems in the future. The University of California at San Diego, where waitlisting is driving students farther from campus, is using state grant money dedicated to higher ed institutions to build a new 1,300-bed complex. UC Berkeley is looking at the potential for redeveloping People’s Park into an area that can house more than 1,000 of its students as well its homeless population.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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