Ahead of the fall term, Eastern Michigan University wanted to reassure students that they could have the residential college experience while maintaining their distance from others during the coronavirus pandemic. So officials made a promise: Any student who wanted a single room could have one.
The offer came with an added perk. Although single rooms typically cost $2,500 more each year than double rooms, the university is giving students a monthly credit that will reduce the annual price by around $1,700.
However, it also comes with a caveat. "Our single room guarantee is not continuous to the first day of class," said James Smith, Eastern Michigan's president. "It really is as many of these as we can convert until we can't convert anymore."
Eastern Michigan can flip some doubles into private rooms because it has extra residence halls it uses when other buildings are undergoing renovations. And students who want a double can still have one.
Families were asking about single rooms shortly before the university rolled out the option but some said they were out of their price range, Smith said. "We have a very blue-collar community," he added. "Lots of our students are at or slightly above the Pell line."
Around 600 students this fall will be in single rooms, some of which have been converted from doubles. That's more than double last year, when the university had 279 private room contracts, a university spokesperson wrote in an email. In all, the college can house nearly 4,000 residential students this fall.
"We're proud to say that we're going to be able to do this, and we think it gives one more level of safety and security for our students," Smith said. However, he acknowledged that they aren't the only school to guarantee single rooms to students at a reduced cost.
Campbell University, a private institution in North Carolina, announced in May that it would give single rooms to all students living on campus this fall and waive its $800 private room fee. William Jewell College, a private liberal arts college in Missouri, is offering a similar deal.
And Sweet Briar College, a private women's institution in Virginia, is also offering a single room to every student who wants one and charging them what they would have paid normally for a double room. The college expects to house about 400 students on its campus, which spans roughly 3,000 acres.
"This is an unusual year," said Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo. "We want to be sure there is maximum safety, and we are one of the few colleges really in this country that can afford to do so because we have some capacity here."
Meanwhile, other colleges are converting more double rooms into singles — even if they're stopping short of a guarantee — or employing other tactics to spread out students, such as renting hotels. In some cases, they're also reducing their housing fees for the fall term.
But not all colleges have the resources or time needed to ensure students can live one to a room. Moreover, these types of arrangements can significantly cut into colleges' housing revenue, a vital income stream.
"They're definitely taking a substantial hit," said Douglas Webber, an associate economics professor at Temple University, in Pennsylvania. The "best-case scenario" for many residential schools is filling only part of their capacity, he said.
A 'tough financial picture'
Eastern Michigan explored whether it could offer students the same rate for single- and double-occupancy rooms but determined it wasn't possible without taking a bruising financial blow. "We wanted to really be mindful of the financial position of our students but also be as fair to the bottom line of the university as we could," Smith said.
The price cut eats into the school's potential revenue on top of housing credits the college gave after it asked students to leave campus in the spring term because of the pandemic. Students who moved out by the end of March were given a credit for their housing and dining, and those who commited to remain in housing in the fall received an additional $500 grant toward their fall 2020 housing costs.
The university has also invested in converting the double rooms into singles and making other changes to student housing to help curb the virus's spread, such as cleaning community bathrooms every day. A spokesperson said the university couldn't disclose how much was spent because the effort is ongoing.
"In two fiscal years, we're taking a fairly significant housing cut," Smith said. That could continue if there isn't a vaccine or other solution to curb the pandemic in the U.S. by next year and such housing accomodations must remain in place.
Eastern Michigan's housing contracts don't provide for a partial refund should students have to leave campus, a spokesperson said, noting that was the case in the spring term as well.
The University of Wyoming, which is planning a mix of face-to-face and online classes and pivoting to entirely virtual instruction after Thanksgiving, made similar changes to its housing by placing the majority of its on-campus students into private rooms. It has a limited number of doubles that were once triple or quadruple-occupancy rooms.
"It puts a whole lot less strain on all the common spaces," said Eric Webb, the university's executive director of residence life and dining services.
Students who select a private room will pay a lower rate this fall than they usually would, with prices slated to rise in the spring. That can make the option more affordable for families but creates a "tough financial picture" for the university, Webb said.
"The reality is, we're probably going to be down somewhere around 25% in our residence hall population, so we're comparably going to be down about that much in revenue," he said, adding that the university also had to make significant investments to prepare for the fall term.
To help space out students, the U of Wyoming is spending more than $1 million over the summer refurbishing a residence hall that hadn't been used in about five years. That includesd replacing the carpet, painting some spaces and upgrading the Wi-Fi.
It also converted a former armory it acquired last year into a space that can quarantine up to 30 students who test positive for the coronavirus. To accommodate students, the university added fridges and microwaves to the building's rooms and upgraded its Wi-Fi.
U of Wyoming also refunded about $3.1 million to students who had to leave their housing during the spring term, and it is prepared to do the same if the pandemic cuts the fall term short on campus.
However, these strategies aren't likely to be sustainable if the pandemic extends beyond the spring, Temple's Webber said. If it does, "there's absolutely going to be consequences in terms of staff being laid off and salary cuts," he said.
A 'very imperfect solution'
Converting double rooms into singles can't be the only distancing strategy in a college's fall playbook. For one, not all schools have the time or resources to transform dorms.
Take Nicholls State University, a public institution in southeastern Louisiana. In June, the college attempted to buy a 100-room hotel near campus for $1.1 million to increase the number of single rooms it could offer students in light of the pandemic.
But the deal fell through when lawmakers requested more details about the university's long-term plan for the building, which it hoped to renovate in time for students' arrival in early August, said Jerad David, Nicholls' director of communications. The college moved up its fall term so it could end classes before Thanksgiving.
"The entire thing was a little bit rushed," he said. "Our semester is sprinting headfirst at us."
Instead of guaranteeing private rooms, Nicholls hopes to pair students with others they might be comfortable living with during the pandemic, such as a sibling or close friend, and is spreading beds eight feet apart in double rooms.
The university also recently received a $400,000 donation from BHP Petroleum that will help it complete a $1 million renovation of unused residence halls. Around half of those rooms can be converted into single-occupancy rooms, which will go primarily to students who may be more vulnerable to the coronavirus, David said.
Nicholls is considering housing its football team in the other half of the rooms. "They're going to practice together, so they're exposed to one another already," he said, adding that they would be isolating from other students.
"To me, the single room is a very imperfect solution."
Author, ""Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory"
Even if colleges manage to house most or all students in private rooms, the common areas still pose an issue. For instance, Eastern Michigan and U of Wyoming have shared bathrooms.
In a recent poll of 69 administrators, consultancy EAB found their top concern was that students wouldn't follow social distancing guidelines while living on campus.
There's reason for concern. Several health experts have publicly expressed that it's likely unsafe for colleges to reopen this fall even if they implement social distancing measures in campus housing.
Moreover, residence halls tend to be designed to foster connections among students, said Carla Yanni, the author of "Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory." For instance, the shape of lounges and the very existence of double rooms are meant to encourage interaction.
"That's going to make it very difficult to continue to have students living in residence halls while staying away from each other," she said.
Colleges are employing several tactics to discourage students from gathering in common areas, such as putting stickers outside of rooms that list their maximum occupancy and educating them about proper social distancing.
But Yanni is skeptical about those methods. "These are college students. They're sociable, they're going to have parties, they're going to have sex. They're going to spend extended amounts of time breathing on one another," she said. "To me, the single room is a very imperfect solution."