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Elite Colleges Offer Students Cash, Ski Passes to Ease Campus Housing Crunch

As college campuses open up, universities are facing a shortage of housing to accommodate returning students.

(Bloomberg)—Colleges are preparing for a flood of students returning to on-campus dorm life this semester, after many spent the past year studying remotely. One problem? There’s not enough housing for everyone.

Undergrads looking forward to resuming in-person classes will be jostling for space with 20-somethings who took a year off, and students who otherwise might be spending time abroad. Accommodating them all has been like a puzzle -- especially for elite schools that tout their small class sizes and close-knit social scenes.

In Vermont, Middlebury College is dangling incentives like ski passes to find takers for a satellite locale 11 miles (18 kilometers) away. Dartmouth College, in neighboring New Hampshire, converted common areas into bedrooms and doubles into triples, and offered $5,000 to students who would drop their bid to live on campus. Even after that, more than 90 remained on a waitlist for housing as of last week.

“Other potential solutions, such as new modular housing or blocks of hotel space, proved to be less feasible,” said Justin Anderson, a Dartmouth spokesman. Among the reasons: a local labor shortage and the expected return of fall tourists to northern New England.

It’s a tricky spot for colleges, after enrollments declined last spring and some of the richest schools granted discounts. Dorms and dining halls, which help bring in revenue, also sat emptier than usual.

This semester, they’ll have the opposite problem. Harvard, in Massachusetts, is expecting its biggest freshman class since World War II. Pomona College in California, said in an email to students that the incoming class will be its largest ever.

Ski Passes

At Middlebury, fall enrollment climbed to 2,880, about 13% more than a typical year. The college recently bumped its room and board discount up to 50% if students opted to live at its Bread Loaf location, generally used for writers’ conferences, and take a shuttle to campus. The deal also comes with a season pass for two ski mountains, free laundry and a faculty parking pass.

“Our first priority is to provide an in-person educational experience to all active students who wish to be here,” Derek Doucet, dean of students, said in a July 27 statement posted online. In the coming weeks, some students may end up getting assigned to Bread Loaf as a last-ditch option if not enough have stepped up, or the college’s student count doesn’t decline significantly, he said.

Some undergrads aren’t biting at the incentives their schools are offering, and are instead taking their chances on the waitlist.

For 20-year-old Valeria Andrade, a rising senior and engineering major at Dartmouth, finding out last week that she’d won a coveted on-campus spot meant a return to living with friends after months of studying remotely from Miami.

“Living on campus was something I really wanted to do because I’d been away for so long,” she said.

Even when she was there for last year’s fall semester, social distancing and other Covid restrictions made the campus “far from normal,” Andrade said. “I don’t even feel like I go to the school anymore.”

‘Sense of Intimacy’

The housing crunch is most striking for selective colleges that sell an on-campus experience for their price tags, according to Alex Bloom, director of undergraduate enrollment research at EAB Global Inc. A year can run more than $70,000.

Students who attend these small liberal arts colleges “want to walk around and have a sense of intimacy, a small environment with access to everything,” Bloom said. “Their value proposition is most dependent on the in-person college experience.”

At Pomona College in Southern California, “the line between living and learning is practically nonexistent,” according to its website, and 94% of students typically live on campus for all four years.

This fall, some will end up in apartments nearby -- a necessity in a semester with about 50 extra students who were initially slated to graduate in spring 2020, and study-abroad restrictions preventing the usual outflow, according to Josh Eisenberg, Pomona’s dean of campus life.

Getting assigned to one of those units was “a tough blow to deal with” for Aditya Bhalla, a rising junior. Since the campus locked down in March 2020, with two months left in his freshman year, he’s spent more time taking classes on Zoom from his childhood home in Illinois than in person.

“I was just really excited to be back on campus and be part of that community,” Bhalla said. “I really only had six months on campus before we got sent home.”

--With assistance from Janet Lorin.

© 2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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