Colleges Struggle to Finalize Housing Plans As the Fall Semester Approaches
When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck, many people assumed it would be over by summer. However, as the number of positive COVID tests continues to reach new records in the United States, it seems likely life will not go back to normal for several months at least. This has left many colleges and college students in a tricky position. Schools assumed they could operate normally for fall semesters, but with the new semester just around the corner, they are now realizing this is not possible. Many colleges around the nation are now left scrambling to figure out some sort of housing plan.
No Clear Refunding Plans Exist for Colleges With Closed Residence Halls
A major source of controversy has been the way schools handle housing refunds. In many areas, schools have to shut down dorms entirely to keep students safe. This poses a problem for students who had already paid to join a housing plan. Some schools like The University of South Florida and the Western Carolina University have made waves by announcing they have no plans to return housing fees. Students who have signed up for housing are being told that if dorms close, the students will not get refunds for prepaid housing. This puts a lot of financial hardship on students already in a tricky position.
Of course some schools have taken a more student-friendly approach, clearly specifying that students will receive a refund if dorms have to close. In these cases, there is still uncertainty though about how these refunds will actually be paid out. Some students worry about how they will pay for living expenses if their college does not process refunds for a while.
Some Colleges Are Renting Out Private Apartments and Hotels for Students
Universities that feel they cannot provide safe housing on campus are turning to a novel approach. Instead of dorms, schools like Northeastern University are leasing out rooms at hotels and apartment buildings. The advantage of using these instead of dorms is that students have private bathrooms, and there is more space to spread out students. Just like with usual student residences, the school plans to handle all the details of providing the space and utilities. Schools can do a master lease on a large collection of units, and then students who pay a housing fee get assigned a room.
This might seem like a clever solution to the problem of student housing during a pandemic, but it is not foolproof. The challenging part of renting hotels and apartments is often simply finding ones that fit the criteria. These rooms need to be safe and accessible. Furthermore, students will require Wi-Fi, dining services, and other services usually provided by the campus. Most schools also want to commit to providing housing within walking distance to the college, so students do not require cars or public transportation. In many more crowded regions, there may not be enough housing that fits all these requirements within walking distance to the school.
Even Online and Off-Campus Students Face Housing Uncertainties
The college housing crisis is not solely affecting students who live in dorms. Even off campus students are reporting that they may not be able to attend fall semester due to housing concerns. For some students, the problem is that their scholarships, financial aid, and visas are tied to being an on-campus student. At schools where all learning has moved online, these students may lose the financial support they need to afford housing.
Another problem is that housing in general is a mess right now. Students who left school to move in with family or move into off-campus housing are often struggling to make ends meet. Many of the jobs held by students, such as restaurant work, are not available right now, so paying rent is difficult. Many states froze evictions throughout the summer, but as fall approaches, the eviction freeze deadline is looming. Once this ends, students all over the country may find themselves being evicted and in desperate need of affordable housing.
Ultimately, all the challenges facing students and universities are very large. To overcome the challenges of COVID and provide safe housing for students, universities may need to think outside the box and provide more flexibility on housing fees.
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