There are students who, in normal times, see benefits to living on campus for all four undergraduate years. On campus, they feel like they’re at the center of all things important to them. On the other hand, there are many students, especially upperclassmen, who prefer the independence from administrative influence that comes with living off-campus.
This dichotomy has long existed on campuses across the country. At any college, the ratio of students in the two camps is determined by factors such as a college’s policies, the cost of room and board, the local cost of living, the availability of rentals, and the ease of finding part time jobs in the area.
We have seen recently that things can go very wrong no matter where you live at college. Consider the unpleasantness that both on-campus and off-campus residents experienced earlier this year due to the coronavirus — an unforeseen crisis. Colleges closed dormitories abruptly, with all residents, including international students unable to return home, ordered to leave ASAP. Many on-campus residents never received refunds for the fees they paid for the semester. Most off-campus students were locked into contracts for rentals even though their purpose for living in them ended when classes did.
Like so many other things, the pandemic has affected college housing choices. If you’re a high school senior planning to attend a residential college in the fall of 2021, you should keep apprised of what’s happening on campuses this fall.
To Open or Not To Open
There are two main factors working at cross-purposes in a college’s decision to open their residence and dining halls. The first is money. Both public and private institutions have invested heavily to upgrade on-campus residential life in order to remain competitive. To earn a return on these investments, colleges have increased their residential fees by 9% annually over the last ten years, which is much more than the rate of inflation and also exceeds the rate that tuition has risen.
In a recent year, colleges collectively realized $15.5 billion in revenue for room and board and spent $14.9 billion to provide it, generating a surplus of $600 million. But if they’re empty, residence facilities chew up overhead while generating no revenue, causing substantial losses. This scenario incentivizes college administrators to open dormitories and dining halls.
The second factor, health, pulls in the opposite direction. Colleges long ago shed the burden of acting in loco parentis for their students, but they’re still ethically obligated to protect their student’s health. This is their duty regardless of how severe the financial impact may be on the college.
The tension between these two forces is being played out in real time as administrators waffle between alternatives. The choices are clear. They may open their campuses to business as usual, keep their campuses closed and conduct virtual classes, or offer a hybrid approach.
Thus far, the plans of administrators have proven ephemeral and subject to sudden change. Examples include UNC – Chapel Hill and Notre Dame, where students returned in August for one week before the rate of infection caused the campuses to close again. Imagine how many lives were disrupted by just these two quick policy reversals.
Certain administrators feel compelled to fill their dormitories to capacity this fall. Some are under contract with private corporations that operate the college’s residential facilities. Any policy that limits revenue makes the college subject to a lawsuit. The University System of Georgia is one of the largest institutions in this predicament. Other colleges are opening but with long lists of safety precautions that they’re undertaking to curtail the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, the efficacy of these measures will only be knowable in retrospect. It’s a roll of the dice.
What’s shocking is that decisions of such major consequence are being left to you — the student. Administrators seem reluctant to make tough decisions and stick with them. That’s why the current operations of so many colleges are subject to the day-to-day vicissitudes of a viral disease. The quality of administrative leadership of America’s colleges has been spotty, to say the least. Perhaps we can take comfort that from this experience, improvements in preparedness for future crises are bound to evolve.