Mercer’s Housing Crunch: Too many Bears for the den

April 18, 2015

When rising Mercer University senior Nora Essien told her parents that she may have to live off campus next year, they were worried.

The 21-year-old business major comes from a low-income family where money is tight. Her father works long hours at a warehouse, and his meager salary goes to support her mom, who is unemployed, Essien and her sister.

With help from grants, loans and scholarships, Essien is able to fund part of her college tuition. She works two on-campus jobs and also has a part-time job at McDonald’s when she’s available.

She relies on financial aid to help pay for her room and board.

Because of the increased demand for on-campus housing—which includes residence halls and apartments, as well as Lofts I, II and III—and Mercer’s three-year housing requirement, upperclassmen like Essien are pressed for housing options.

Some upperclassmen are upset about being placed in the Lofts, which cost more than traditional housing, while others are upset about having to fend for themselves to find off-campus housing.

Director of Housing for Residence Life Jeff Takac said the housing crunch may be a “one-year problem.” Lofts Phase V and the new freshman residence hall will both open in fall 2016 with over 600 beds, which will create more space on campus.

But Essien won’t reap the benefit of the new housing infrastructure, since she’ll graduate before it opens.

When Essien filled out Mercer’s housing application, she checked the box saying that said she’d rather live off campus than the Lofts.

Essien figured the Lofts wouldn’t be covered her under financial aid, “which is what low-income students were relying on,” she said.

In the past two weeks, Mercer’s Student Government Association (SGA) has tried addressing housing concerns by connecting students to Residence Life officials.President Bill Underwood attended SGA’s senate meeting where he presented his vision of growth for the university.

The Cluster staff has also talked about housing with representatives from administration, staff and students to open the dialogue about the housing crunch. Here is what we found:

 Mercer’s vision for growth

The university’s admissions department has seen a spike in student applications thanks to the national recognition gained from last year’s NCAA March Madness win over Duke University and students earning national prestigious awards, such as Fulbright and Goldwater scholarships.

 “There is no question about it that we’ve experienced increased demand over the last four years,” said Penny Elkins, senior vice president for enrollment management, about housing.

 Elkins said that the administration has made a “strategic decision” to answer the enrollment demand.

“Not only are we seeing an increase in demand but also very bright and talented students. And that in itself will add more value,” Elkins said.

The university increased the undergraduate enrollment and is expanding its infrastructure in order to answer admissions demand, Elkins said.

In the next four to five years, the university will to bump up its enrollment to 3,500 undergraduates, an overall increase of 754 students.

With every decision to increase the university’s size, the administration analyzes the ability to accommodate students in classrooms and housing, and the effect of the overall Mercer experience, according to a statement from the university.

The university’s Board of Trustees set the target enrollment number last summer during a retreat.

“The board doesn’t typically meet in the summer, but we had a special summer retreat and spent a lot of time with the board going over this—talking about strategic decisions about the size of the institution,” said Larry Brumley, senior vice president for marketing and communications.

At the retreat, the board examined Mercer’s current classroom facilities, housing, parking, as well as national data, and concluded that the optimal size would be 3,500 students.

Brumley and Elkins said the board has strived to be proactive about the university’s growth and has no intention of going beyond the 3,500 mark.

In fact, Brumley said admissions has over 100 academically-qualified students on a waitlist for the upcoming school year.

Game changers for on-campus housing

The university tried to predict the number of  students who need on-campus housing for fall, but a “higher-than-anticipated” demand has thrown off its projections, according to a statement from the administration.

One of the factors that created the housing crunch was the unprecedented number of seniors who wanted to live on campus.

 “We also saw a historic high this past year in terms of freshmen who are local students who have chosen to live on campus,” Brumley said.

This year, only three percent of freshman chose to live off campus. This number is usually about 10 percent.

 Under the university’s three-year housing requirement, freshman, sophomores and juniors are required to live in campus housing, meaning that on-campus housing is not guaranteed for seniors.

 Before Residence Life opened the housing process, it sent out an email asking any students if they wanted to be relieved of their housing requirement. A few students confirmed that they wanted to live off campus, which created more housing spots on campus, Takac said.

 This year, Residence Life moved from the lottery system used in the past for housing to a self-assign process.

 The new process essentially allows students to sign themselves up for a room, Takac said.

 The self-assign process opened up in ascending class order, which meant seniors were the last class to go through the process.

 Residence Life has more housing applications from rising sophomores, juniors, seniors and anticipated freshmen than available beds.

 However, Residence Life is confident that it will be able to house all students who are required to live on campus, Brumley said. Often, students make last-minute changes in their living situations or transfer to another school, which creates space.

 So far, almost half of the seniors who have applied for campus housing have been accommodated, including seniors who have full Mercer scholarships that apply to their tuition, room and board. Those seniors will be financially covered for their on-campus housing — even if they are placed by Residence Life in the Lofts.

 Remaining seniors will have the following options: be placed on a waitlist, choose Lofts IV or work with SGA and Residence Life to identify off-campus housing.

 Residence Life is still undergoing the self-assign process for seniors. Essien said she hasn’t recieved an email from Residence Life about her housing placement for next year.

 At the meeting with the college president held during SGA Senate, Essien told President Underwood about her housing situation. He advised her to go ahead and apply for housing. If she’s placed on the waiting list, he advised her to stay put. He also suggested collaborating with Residence Life to find an affordable off-campus housing option.

 “I’ve told them [Residence Life] that when they hear from folks like you, they need to be aggressive in finding you options that are no more expensive than the options you would receive on campus,” Underwood said to Essien.

 Elkins said Residence Life, Financial Aid and the Bursar’s office are looking into offering partial to full scholarships for students who are receiving financial aid outside of Mercer to pay for their housing.

 Essien has already begun searching for off-campus housing options. During her search process, Essien has created a Facebook page dedicated to informing students about off-campus housing opportunities.

But in order to cover rent, Essien said that she’ll probably have to quit her on-campus jobs to find an off-campus job that will pay more.

Essien’s main complaint is the lack of communication between students and the university.

 “My biggest frustration is that if they were going to increase students, they should have worked the alternatives (for housing) in advance,” she said.

 This week, Residence Life hosted a panel to help students find off-campus housing options.

 Takac said Residence Life may need to find a better way to communicate with students since they don’t always read their emails all the time.

 “We’re going to make sure that less people are unhappy than they were when we started this,”  Takac said.

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