Addressing Housing Overflows Proactively

With demand for a college education rising sharply during the recession from both traditional-aged and adult students, providing adequate student housing has rarely been more challenging. This year presents many examples of sudden, unexpected housing overflows at residential institutions. We turned to Lorinda Krhut, director of student housing and residence life at the University of Mississippi, for her advice on how institutions can put in place more proactive measures that will help make the process of managing housing overflows more efficient and less costly in future years.

Moving Beyond Just Coping with a Housing Crisis

Institutions that don't guarantee housing for entering students have more flexibility during a surge in demand, but unexpected spikes in student housing raise difficult challenges for institutions that have a freshmen residency requirement and a limited number of beds. Solutions various institutions have tried when managing an enrollment surge include:

  • A lottery system for returning students
  • Contracting with off-campus apartments and living spaces, then moving upperclassmen to those facilities while charging them the same cost they would have paid for on-campus housing

Krhut notes, however, that these solutions are not ideal. It's better to have contingency plans in place before a housing crisis hits. There are two key strategies for achieving this:

  • Make provisions for expanding capacity ahead of time by establishing a clearinghouse for off-campus living spaces
  • Engage in monthly scenario planning throughout the year with key stakeholders across campus

Establish a Housing Clearinghouse

Krhut recalls one case in which a university had 400 students on a waiting list for housing that the institution didn't have available. The institution responded by reaching out to individuals in the community who would be willing to put up students in the short-term. Leveraging these partnerships, the university established a "clearinghouse" listing both apartment facilities and local families with extra rooms. The clearinghouse was advertised through newspapers and radio.

But you don't have to wait for a housing crisis to establish a clearinghouse. Krhut advises that the best thing you can do to prepare your institution to manage future housing overflows at lower cost is to reach out proactively to local apartment complexes and develop these partnerships early. For example, you can contract for a certain number of beds to be held as backup during a specific time of year. This is a short-term solution until you know how many of your students are no-shows and how many of your other spaces on campus can be and need to be swiftly converted. This gives you a way to house students for a brief period, and if you arrange this prior to the crisis rather than during it, you can negotiate for a lower cost. If your institution guarantees freshman housing and you know that you can't predict the extent of your next enrollment surge, this will prove a worthwhile investment.

"At the least," Krhut remarks, "you can reach out to local apartments and open that relationship, even if you don't establish a formal agreement."

Having a clearinghouse ready before it's needed will prevent a lot of headaches and last-minute expenses when a housing crisis does hit.

Engage in Regular Scenario Planning

Krhut stresses that this effort can't be isolated within the housing office. "Housing can't be on an island if you're in a crisis" Krhut warns. "This is a university challenge, not just a housing challenge." Krhut suggests that an enrollment management committee meet regularly throughout the year, looking at housing projections and holding ongoing tabletop exercises.

"From day one of the new year, meet monthly for scenario planning. What will you do if X happens or if Y happens?"
Lorinda Krhut, U of Mississippi

"Get everyone vested in that challenge," Krhut advises. "You'll learn to work together, you'll learn how the challenge affects each office." This level of collaborative planning is also key to ensuring that the housing office is fully aware of commitments made by enrollment management or other offices that may impact student demand for housing.

A strong committee will include:

  • Registrar
  • Admissions
  • Dean of students
  • Academic advising
  • Housing
  • Parking and police

"That way," Krhut remarks, "everyone knows what the year is looking like long before May, when a potential crisis could hit. Then it turns out not to be a crisis situation, because you have already planned for multiple possible scenarios. Everyone is on the same page and prepared."

Getting Others Involved

Institutions that have engaged in proactive scenario planning to manage potential housing crises often have support for the effort from above, at the vice president level. However, if you are a housing director at an institution without a strong enrollment management committee or where those lines of communication are not strong, that doesn't have to mean that your hands are tied. You can start developing a clearinghouse for local housing, and you can work to educate other key staff about why scenario planning for student housing is critical.

Krhut advises connecting the effort to those outcomes that are critical to the institution and to the other departments you need to partner with. Quality of housing is a critical part of a student's first impression of life on campus. Housing impacts their stress level and their academic success. "Make it clear that this isn't a problem just for the housing office; it's a challenge for the entire campus."