As university leaders weigh how and when to repopulate their campuses during the COVID-19 pandemic, many are finding it particularly difficult to evaluate how many students should be living in on-campus residence halls. At many institutions, living on campus is a crucial dimension of the student experience, as well as a key source of auxiliary revenue. But current public health evidence indicates that communal living could strongly facilitate virus transmission, and many campuses lack the ability to give each student the safest option of a private room and bathroom. Ultimately, all universities are facing the same question: what is the housing solution that provides students with an on-campus experience that’s as fulfilling as possible, while also protecting the community from outbreaks?
The benefits of normal residence life operations
Living on campus is already a central part of the college experience for many students. This fall, many new and returning students will likely be eager to have a “traditional” experience away from home, given they have been learning remotely and living in locked-down communities since spring. Accordingly, many campus leaders fear that if they are not able to offer on-campus housing, students will defer enrollment, go to a competitor institution with an open campus, or demand a tuition reduction due to the perceived lack of services offered. All three scenarios threaten much-needed tuition revenue at a time when most university finances are the tightest they have been since the Great Recession.
And beyond the impact of housing on enrollment, room and board revenue itself is a major component of most university operating budgets. This revenue stream already took a hit last spring when universities sent students home mid-semester, leaving most schools with little financial wiggle room this fall. Furthermore, room and board revenue is dependent on high occupancy at many institutions; if halls are less than 80-90% full, the cost of residence hall operations can exceed the revenue brought in. Mandatory debt service from recent residence hall construction is a major contributor to these high operating costs.
There are also real needs served by campus housing beyond just fulfilling the wishes of students or supporting university finances. Limiting or closing on-campus housing severely disadvantages students who come from abroad or lack resources at their family home. Other students come from actively unsafe environments and rely on their institutions for secure housing and meals. These are especially important considerations for schools with large populations of students of lower socio-economic status (SES) or international students.
The risk: COVID-19 transmission
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Unfortunately, residence halls are high-risk environments for the spread of disease. Studies show that the coronavirus spreads mostly via person-to-person contact—a constant in university residence halls, which by design put students in close contact in shared bedrooms, bathrooms, and common spaces. (In some large residence halls, as many as thirty students can share a single bathroom.) The tight dimensions of the average double room increase the likelihood of transmission between roommates. This risk, in turn, may dampen students’ (or parents’) enthusiasm for the roommate experience. Emerging science backs this up: a study of the COVID-19 outbreak aboard the USS Rooseveltthis spring showed that berthmates of infected sailors were twice as likely to become sick as other individuals. And although most cases seem to be passed through direct contact, rather than by touching contaminated surfaces, a growing body of evidence shows that bathrooms are particularly infectious environments. A study of German households that quarantined after one member caught COVID-19 found that the virus was five times more likely to be present on bathroom surfaces than in any other place in the house.
Finally, it is recommended that every university set aside at least some space for quarantine and/or isolation units, which will reduce the amount of available on-campus housing regardless of capacity. There is no suggested formula for calculating an appropriate number of units based on campus population. However, studies of contact tracing so far suggest that for every confirmed COVID-19 case, an additional seven to eight individuals will be identified for possible quarantine or isolation. In some cases, that number can be as high as one hundred, and densely populated university campuses might indeed see contact numbers above the average.
Residence hall density as one piece of the overall plan
While the transmission risks of communal living are well-established at this point, lowering the density of residence halls is still only one part of an institution’s broader risk-reduction plan. The idea behind a good public health strategy is to combine different types of protective measures in a comprehensive plan, an approach experts have likened to stacking layers of swiss cheese. Although each individual measure will not control risks completely, when multiple measures are brought together, the protection provided by one layer covers the “holes” in another. For this reason, schools that have invested heavily in virus containment measures can possibly populate residence halls more densely without assuming greater risk. Effective containment methods include regular testing of both symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals, robust contact tracing capacity, and ample quarantine/isolation space, among others.
The range of options for populating your residence halls
To help campus leaders think through the benefits and risks of different residence hall population solutions, EAB has broken down a spectrum of options, ranging from full capacity to single rooms for every student. Below, we explain the pros and cons of each scenario in light of balancing the need for normal campus operations with what’s currently known about viral transmission risk factors. This information can help your campus make a fully informed decision about what’s right for you in the context of other components of your campus repopulation plan.
Level 1: No changes are made to residential occupancy or layout.
- Benefits: This option is closest to a typical residential college experience, and allows as many students back on campus as possible. It may positively impact enrollment and retention for students who prioritize that aspect of campus life. It also maximizes room and board revenue, and avoids additional costs incurred by converting units to singles or leasing additional residential facilities.
- Risks: With no quarantine or isolation units set aside, universities have few options to contain a campus outbreak, and the risk of one spreading through a densely-populated residence hall is high.
Level 2: Quarantine/isolation facilities take some rooms offline, but otherwise residence halls remain at nearly 100% capacity.
- Benefits: With some facilities reserved for quarantine and isolation, universities have a limited ability to control outbreaks on campus. Meanwhile, students still retain most of the benefits associated with a typical residence life program. Room and board revenue experiences a modest decline, but auxiliary operations remain profitable.
- Risks: The risk of an outbreak spreading through a residence hall is not significantly reduced.
Level 3: Bedroom occupancy is capped at two people per bedroom, in addition to the previous measures listed above.
- Benefits: With only high-occupancy rooms of three or more roommates taken offline, most room and board revenue is preserved. The student residence life experience is close to normal. Very dense residential situations are eliminated, lowering the risk of infection somewhat for students who would have lived in them.
- Risks: This option is unlikely to decrease overall density, as high-occupancy rooms do not represent the majority of housing stock at most universities. As a result, the overall impact on disease transmission is likely to be fairly small.
Level 4: Building occupancy is capped at a given number of people per bathroom, in addition to the previous measures listed above.
- Benefits: This caps overall occupancy more effectively than just eliminating high-occupancy rooms, and it targets the specific transmission risks of shared bathrooms. The student residence life experience is somewhat impacted, but many aspects are maintained. Revenue is lowered, but the majority of residence life space can still be utilized.
- Risks: Bathrooms are a transmission risk based on the number of people who use them simultaneously or in quick succession. It is also unclear if the coronavirus can be spread via body fluids; if so, this further increases the risk. However, major health organizations remain unable to agree on an acceptable number of people per bathroom, meaning that any reductions universities calculate on their own may or may not be sufficient to reduce transmission. Transmission between roommates, meanwhile, still remains likely. Revenue also begins to be significantly limited at this level of risk reduction, depending on how sharply universities decide to reduce bathroom capacity.
Level 5: Any student can request a single room, in addition to the previous measures listed above.
- Benefits: The ability to control the spread of a residence hall outbreak is significantly increased at this level, as the total number of people with whom residents share intimate space is meaningfully capped for students with singles. However, making singles a requestable option, rather than the default, still preserves much housing revenue.
- Risks: Any student sharing a room or a bathroom will still encounter a number of other students during their daily routines, limiting the university’s overall ability to control a residence hall-based outbreak. There may also be equity concerns with this option if the cost of a single exceeds that of a double-occupancy room, forcing students who cannot afford a single to live in a higher-risk environment.
Level 6: All students returning receive a single room, in addition to the previous measures listed above.
- Benefits: From a public health perspective, this is the safest option. Residence hall outbreaks are controlled to the greatest extent possible, and all students have equal access to the safest possible housing.
- Risks: For most universities, this probably represents an unacceptable decrease in auxiliary revenue. Campuses may also incur added costs from securing additional housing facilities. Additionally, if the university plans to bring a large percentage of students back to campus, but university housing is significantly reduced, students may be driven to potentially denser off-campus housing options.
Ultimately, each university must balance the competing priorities of safety, engagement, and revenue as part of a broader plan for pandemic operations. Residence life is just one component of that comprehensive approach, meaning there is no one-size-fits-all approach to residence hall density; instead, each campus must weigh the risks and benefits of different options individually based on their particular circumstances and comfort with the risks involved.