Dorm Occupancy in a Time of Declining Enrollments
by Silence Dogood

At multiple meetings, Vice President for Finance and Administration Tammy McGee has stated that the reason for the declining residence hall occupancy rate is that “SCSU is not providing the type of accommodations desired by students.” Her argument sounds reasonable but does it stand up to close inspection?

From the Residential Life webpage:

According to the webpage, there are “a little more than 3500 students living on-campus.” Additionally on the Residential Life webpage, each of the residence halls has a link that provides additional information and the capacity of each of the ten residence halls.

The capacity of each residence hall (taken from the Residential Life webpage for each of the residence halls) is listed in the following table:

The sum of the capacities equals 3,369, which isn’t “a little more than 3500 students” as indicated on the website. The difference amounts to a difference of 129 students and represents an error of at least 3.7%. This might seem like a minor point, but it should not be too hard to determine the capacity of each of the residence halls and determine the total capacity.

However, this is only a part of the story. Last fall, the Residential Life website listed the following capacities of the residence halls.

So it is now understandable how one could come up with the statement “a little more than 3500 students” since it shows a capacity of 3,567. For FY’14, only Shoemaker hall was closed for renovations and perhaps the capacity was reduced in the remodeling. If you have an empty two-person room and you ‘change’ the capacity to one person, you have simultaneously reduced your capacity and increased your percentage occupancy by the stroke of a pen. As a result, if you can change the capacity of the residence halls, occupancy rates really mean nothing. As a result, we need to talk about the numbers of students living in the residence halls rather than the occupancy rate.

In the fall of 2009, the year before Coborn’s Plaza Apartments opened, residence hall occupancy on campus was 96% (according to Dan Pederson, Director of Residential Life). If you subtract the Coborn’s Plaza Apartments from the total capacity you have a total capacity of 3,114. If there was 96% occupancy, this would mean there were 2,989 students living in the residence halls. Unless the percentage of students wanting to live in the residence halls increased in the Fall of 2010, the net effect of adding Coborn’s Plaza Apartments to the dorm capacity would be to lower the occupancy rate from 96% to 84%.

It seems as if the whole idea behind building Coborn’s Plaza Apartments was “if we build it, they will come.” Yet no data was ever provided to show that the 43% occupancy of Coborn’s Plaza Apartments in the first year of occupancy (FY11) was due to new students. In fact, one of the major selling points for Coborn’s Plaza was that it was intended for upper-level students. That certainly went by the wayside with the low occupancy level during the first year and now first-year students as well as students from St. Cloud Technical and Community College now reside there.

From FY11 to FY14, SCSU’s FYE enrollment has fallen by 17.2%. Again, assuming the same percentage of students wanted to live in the residence halls, the enrollment decline would reduce the residence hall occupancy to 67%. However, the story doesn’t end here. With the explosive growth in the S2S program, over 3,300 of the students counted as being enrolled at SCSU, approximately 20% of the headcount enrollment, are actually in high school and living at home. As a result, the decline in SCSU’s pool of potential residents for the residence halls would reduce the occupancy rate to less than 60% if interest in resident hall living remained constant.

Dan Pederson and his staff have done a marvelous job of selling the residence halls on campus and keeping the occupancy in the vicinity of 70% during this time of declining enrollment and shifts in student body composition to include large numbers of high school students. Let’s hope the increase in occupancy rate is not due to playing games with the capacity numbers by artificially reducing capacity.

Unfortunately, at a 70% occupancy rate, there is room for over 1,000 students in the residence halls. A total of 779 empty spaces are accounted for in two dorms (Stearns and Holes) that are being mothballed. Additionally, there are approximately 100 empty spaces in the Coborn’s Plaza Apartments as well as empty spaces in the other seven residence halls.

From the Residential Life website, we find the following:

“Living on campus is a great value. It’s easy to budget when you know exactly what your expenses will be. In the halls, there are no hookup charges for cable TV. There are no deposits or hidden costs. Meals are included, as well as some extra money on your ID card for late night snacks! Our residence hall costs are well below the national average, making them very affordable for students. The full academic year costs for room and board are approximately $7236. This includes everything (food, utilities, expanded basic cable TV, ResLife Cinema movie channel, on-line computer access, etc.).”

Assuming that the data is accurate, 1,000 fewer students who could live in the residence halls represents the loss $7,236,000 in room and board revenue. On August 6, 2014, an SCSU press release listed the cost of tuition at MnSCU universities as $7,340. Thus 1,000 students represent a loss of $7,340,000 in lost tuition. Combined, the 1,000 ‘lost’ students cost SCSU a total of $14,576,000 in revenue this year!

Clearly, all of the $14,576,000 would not be profit to the university but it would certainly raise the number of credits by 1,000 FYE and help in our state allocation calculation. Additionally, these missing 1,000 students are not present to create an additional positive economic impact for the campus and the St. Cloud community!

So back to Vice President for Finance and Administration Tammy McGee’s argument that SCSU doesn’t have the type of housing desired by students. Clearly, her argument doesn’t hold up to close examination because the occupancy of the residence halls is actually higher than expected with the declining enrollment. As a result, the percentage of students that would normally desire accommodations in the residence halls has gone up. Her thinking that on-campus housing is less desirable is based on looking at the total numbers of students living in the residence halls and not understanding how the additional capacity and the decline in the number of the potential residence hall residents affects the occupancy rate. One might expect more of a CFO where accounting is involved.

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