Student Housing Crunch

When resident enrollment surpasses bed count, just about everyone suffers. Overflow students are crowded into makeshift lounges and study rooms, nearby hotels, or RA rooms. Resident staff must manage larger-than-expected communities. Even those lucky students who score a standard room with only one roommate still lose out when community space is occupied by unfortunate latecomers. Parents become involved when they feel they're being short-changed for tuition and fee expenses, or their children are being short-changed on their university experience. And although the accommodations are intended to be short-term, almost 60% of students surveyed reported staying in overflow space for a semester or longer. Many university clients request lounge, study, or other community space that can be easily adapted to accommodate expanded occupancy. Too often, these spaces are permanently lost to their communities. When a room can hold students, it's too easy to put students into it…all the time. And yet, every so often, overflow student housing actually works well. Those five kids in the lounge actually get along. In fact, they don't want to come out! How does that happen? We surveyed students who spent time in expanded occupancy, and found that the most successful arrangements had a few common elements: Advance Notice. The best surprise is no surprise. "Notify people as soon as possible if they will be in an 'overflow' room," says Dr. Don Mills, former Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs at Texas Christian University. "If possible, provide a photo showing that the accommodations are perfectly satisfactory." Community Involvement. With the loss of a lounge or study space, it's even more important to find ways to build community. Look for opportunities to get students together using common spaces within the building, or outdoors, in lieu of occupied lounges. Space. This is perhaps the most critical. Overflow student housing accommodations should provide at least as much space per student as a typical room arrangement – and ideally, a bit more. An expanded occupancy solution that almost always backfires? Assigning students to share rooms with Resident Assistants, or Community Leaders. The students are invariably isolated from their peers, and the RAs are frustrated and resentful for having to share a benefit of their job with a stranger. "I was roomed with a Community Leader in an engineering community. I was a freshman psych major at the time and had nothing in common with my roommate or hall mates," one student complained of her experience. "In addition, the University tried to charge me more for living in upperclassmen housing." Many respondents of the survey offered some suggestions to make overflow housing assignments more palatable: Fee Discount. Most people are willing to tolerate some inconvenience, if they feel they're fairly compensated for it. A discount in student life fees – or, perhaps, a bump to the next level of the dining plan – may impart a better sense of patience in overflow students. Community Involvement. With the loss of a lounge or study space, it's even more important to find ways to build community. Look for opportunities to get students together using common spaces within the building, or outdoors, in lieu of occupied lounges. "For those designing new housing, do not be afraid of building smaller community spaces as well as the large ones," Mills says.  "The smaller would not be appropriate for overflow housing and would still have some community space for the residents." The challenges of overflow housing are often unavoidable. Universities everywhere are dealing with this issue, as reported here in The Desmoines Register and The Boston Globe. With some planning and consideration, however, students in expanded occupancy can enjoy their experience as much as their peers.