SRU will join nine other Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities in introducing a two-year residential housing requirement for Fall 2023.
The nine PASSHE universities that have implemented two-year housing requirements are Bloomsburg, California University, Clarion, Edinboro, Kutztown, Lock Haven, Mansfield, Millersville and Shippensburg.
SRU President William Behre has thought about a two-year residential housing requirement since he arrived in 2018. SRU had more undergraduates at that time, so implementing a plan then wasn’t feasible.
Behre also enlisted Chief Student Affairs Officer David Wilmes and his staff to convince him why the two-year residential housing requirement would be a bad idea, and they couldn’t come up with a “compelling” enough reason.
When researching for his plan prior to the pandemic, Behre consulted a national study done by the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International (ACUHO-I) regarding persistence and the benefits of living on campus.
Based on the study, Behre made a “conservative” estimate that junior and senior classes will increase by about 2%, which is about 50-60 students.
Two years from now, he predicts that SRU will see about a 2-4% jump in the second- or third-year class.
“If you get half a percentage point in a year in first- to second-year retention, you’ve done a great job,” he said. “These are numbers that don’t change quickly.
“If this (requirement) stays for six or seven years, I think your sophomore to junior class will be about 4% larger than it would have been if you had done nothing.”
Of the nine residence halls on campus, SRU owns only North Hall and Rhodes Hall. The other residence halls were built while President Cheryl J. Norton was in office by a foundation that rents the land from SRU. The foundation owns the buildings, but SRU manages payroll and staffing except for cleaners who are part of an outside contract.
The foundation uses the rent they collect from students to pay their mortgage in the form of a bond. The foundation then reimburses SRU for employees’ salaries and other management costs. What’s left over is donated to the 501C3 Chairity, which goes toward scholarships for SRU students.
SRU is currently at about 92% occupancy. Since Fall 2016, the university is down 800 undergraduates. Since the university has relaxed its commuting rules, Behre is confident they will fit the increased number of students.
“If we go from 92% to where we want to be at 99% occupancy, that extra 7% of money is going back into scholarships,” Behre said.
There are also some rooms on campus that are currently housing two students, but they could fit three people in those rooms while staying within housing guidelines. This is only a worst-case scenario, though.
When the University Union is renovated, which is expected to be completed by 2023, the student counseling center and student health center will move out of Rhodes opening the first floor if extra space is needed.
“The decision is really based around the idea of providing those first two years of experience,” Wilmes said. “While there are going to be some people that are displaced, that was sort of a bigger picture kind of thing.”
The administration is still working out the criteria for which upperclassmen will get priority housing on campus. Scholarship programs like the Pittsburgh Promise that require students to live on campus for four years will still have housing.
The university also has an emergency relief fund for students in crisis.
In addition to the two-year residential housing requirement, Behre is well aware of concerns that the requirement will exasperate a campus-wide “parking problem.”
He argues that the new requirement does not affect the total number of students looking for parking.
“If our enrollments don’t grow, and our housing goes up by 7%, there will be more students,” he said. “Though, it will likely be that more students will be seeking overnight parking on campus.”
A resident student is most likely parking their car and walking to class, so those students aren’t fighting for spots, he said.
Behre also considers that the next president may not want to come into the position and make decisions without doing their own research first. In his opinion, this is a low-risk, high-return experiment.
However, SRU-APSCUF is concerned that requiring students to live on campus for two years will drive up their costs.
“We (SRU-APSCUF) are concerned that requiring two-year housing unnecessarily raises the cost to attend SRU, which appears to be the opposite of the statement ‘highest quality education at the lowest possible cost’ found in PA ACT 188 and PA ACT 50,” SRU-APSCUF President Jason Hilton said.
Behre would argue that living off campus is more expensive than living on campus when adding in bills for parking, utilities and other costs.
SRU-APSCUF also believes that students from lower-income backgrounds may choose to instead attend universities that don’t have a two-year residential housing requirement to keep costs down.
An overall loss of students could also trigger a need to reduce the number of faculty at SRU.
“Administration argues that any loss of students recruited will be covered by an increase in retention of student,” Hilton said. “That is an economic model. We (SRU-APSCUF) have asked for evidence that this will both lead to an increase in retention and that such an increase will offset the loss of students recruited. We have not been provided with that evidence.”
If living in the dorms was more beneficial than living off campus, administration would not have to mandate that students live in the dorms for two years, Hilton said.
“We (SRU-APSCUF) believe SRU should focus on enriching the experience of students living in dorms and/or lower the cost of student housing, such that students will rationally choose to live in the dorms for multiple years, rather than be forced to do so.”
Behre argues that if the administration does not see the results they were looking for, or admissions brings issues to the presidential cabinet, the requirement can easily be reversed by the next administration.
“In some ways, I think if there’s a controversy over this, it’s a tempest in a tea pot because it’s easily reversible,” he said. “Studies show that it actually would benefit us, and if it doesn’t, then we just stop doing it.”