On-campus housing: location, convenience, community, safety, good food, reasonable rates, and lasting friendships! What isn’t there to like? It should not come as a surprise to anyone that students flock to submit their housing contracts. But then what? The contract deadline has arrived and you are looking at 106% occupancy. Angry students! Irate parents! Administrators demanding solutions! PANIC! Yes, panic. But, relax, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare. Over-occupancy, although unpredictable, is manageable. The key is to have a plan. A relatively simple plan that is composed of three elements: 1.) Create more space; 2.) Reduce the population and; 3.) Pamper them once they arrive.
The first step in creating more space is to tour the buildings. You are looking for space that traditionally has not been used for living quarters. There are some points one must keep in mind. For example, if it is a new space, can you secure the space? Does it have windows? Would egress be problematic? Are the bathrooms and public spaces handy? Too handy? Once you look at every nook and cranny, list the new rooms in a continuum beginning with the “First to Use” right down to “No Choice but to Use”. As you make your assignments, start at the top of the list and hope you never reach the end!
Next, make notes on your larger rooms. Keeping tenancy laws for student occupancy in consideration, can you increase the number of beds in these rooms? Can suites be made into temporary situations? For example, if you remove the living room furniture and replace it with additional bedroom furniture, could you double the occupancy? The suite can return to its original purpose once you are able to re-assign some of the students. Look at all types of rooms with the purpose of increasing the occupancy if only on a temporary basis.
Your building tour can end once you have re-evaluated the current temporary rooms. Is there space for an additional bed? Can you change the gender designation of a bathroom to accommodate more women or men? The freedom to change a wing or floor at the last minute may be your saving grace.
Once the tour is over, it is time to brainstorm. Outside of discovering new space, or adding new beds to existing rooms, what else can you do? Can you lease a hotel off campus? Use single RA rooms as doubles? Purchase housing off campus? Can you set up mobile homes or ask the local population or faculty members to “host a student”? Remember that the sky is the limit. No idea should be discarded. The object is to create more space.
The second step in the overall plan to manage occupancy is to reduce the population. Initially this step seems brutal. To begin with, you must stop accepting contracts. If you have always had an open-ended contract submittal process, it must end. Be prepared for an onslaught of phone calls from every direction. As the calls come in, you must remember you are doing this for the good of the students who have already secured housing! A brutal move, but necessary.
The next measure in your quest to reduce the population is to make it easy for the students to withdraw their housing contract. Let students know you have eliminated the penalty for cancelling their contract, help the off campus apartment complex advertise their vacant space, offer incentives for cancelling through special meal plans, freebees or money. Know what your parameters might be and start another brainstorming session.
If you find that these actions haven’t helped reduce the population, it is time to start a letter campaign. Send them a letter asking them if they are indeed attending your institution. Make it as easy for them as possible. Have a tear off section at the bottom of the page they can return to your office if they are attending another school. This is a simple step that will oftentimes have great results.
A series of letters can be mailed to the upper class students. This campaign can begin mid spring semester and continue over the summer months. The first letter offers an extension on the “cancellation with no penalty” marketing conducted earlier in the spring semester. Let the students know that it is their “last chance” to cancel “no questions and no penalties”. This offers a mild reminder to those students who might still be considering off-campus housing.
The May 1 freshman acceptance deadline date is another time to re-evaluate your numbers. If you are still high, send another letter to the upper class students explaining the numbers and informing them your office will still consider a set number of cancellations. Make it clear in this letter if they do not cancel within the set number, they will suffer penalties IF they are even released. This is their “last chance” letter. This letter, along with all letters you send should contain a deadline date for cancelling. This will give you the opportunity to reevaluate after each letter to determine if another step must be taken.
Another letter can be addressed to those students actually receiving an assignment in the temporary space. Depending on class residency requirements, such as a freshman on-campus requirement, you may need to author more than one letter. This letter should contain information about the temporary accommodations. This is the “brutal truth” letter. Tell them how many people will live in the room, how long they will be in that space and offer them one last chance to cancel. Include brochures and as much information as you can.
This letter serves two purposes and carries into the third phase of managing over-occupancy. Keep them happy once they have been assigned. Part of this approach is keeping them informed. By including as much information as possible in your letter, you are taking away the element of surprise. At the same time, be sure to offer them that one last chance to live somewhere off campus.
Now it is time to create an inviting environment. Before students arrive, know how you will re-assign them from temporary space. Is it more important to reduce numbers in some rooms or to empty rooms? Remember the “No Choice but Use” rooms? Did you use them? Should they be emptied first? Or is it more important to reduce that standard six-occupant lounge, currently housing eight, back down to six? These are decisions that should be made prior to assigning the students, enabling you to re-assign them in a manner consistent with your contract submittal and assignment policies.
Finally, it is time to brainstorm again. What is the best way to let the students know you are aware of their living conditions and you care about them? Do you give them a preferential housing assignment for the next semester? Do you supply welcome packets or monthly goodies? Can you consider financial rebates on room rates? Is new furniture an option? Can the staff be trained to respond to their every need or RA’s have special training to react to group roommate conflicts? Once again, the sky is the limit. Concentrate on developing ways of letting them know you care about their environment.
Three easy steps:
Increase space, decrease the population and take care of them once they arrive. Pretty simple, isn’t it? Receive input from everyone you can: students, parents, faculty, residence life, housing and other institutions. You must brainstorm with your colleagues and coax students to cancel, even scare your occupants with the reality of temporary housing. And for those students who decide to stay anyway? Pamper them! You will find in the end, over-occupancy management isn’t hard at all!
Submitted by Kathy Krinks, Manager of Assignment Office, Penn State University