Empty dorms pose financial problems for Pennsylvania public universities


Editor’s Note: The original version of this story underestimated the total cost of the combined projects. This update reflects higher actual numbers.

As the Pennsylvania state higher education system finalizes the details of a historic consolidation, campus officials at eight of its 14 universities are struggling to cope with another consequence of declining enrollment: entire wings and empty dormitory floors.

This prompted System Chancellor Dan Greenstein to offer to allocate $ 12.5 million this year to help pay off debt on buildings. Schools, Greenstein told the board of directors, “have a debt on dormitories that is not easily repayable with the number of residents in those halls.”

The newer dorms – suite-style residences with private bathrooms and kitchenettes – replaced traditional residences where students typically lived two to each room and shared common bathrooms.

They were part of a construction boom financed by bond debt.

University officials said schools needed to upgrade their facilities and the stunning new “green” buildings would be a boon to enrollment.

At Indiana University in Pennsylvania, officials at the time proudly boasted of hosting the biggest “residential revival” of any college in the country. The project lasted from 2006 to 10 and came with a price tag of $ 250 million. It replaced all but one of its aging dormitories with facilities that have since won awards as model green buildings.

Shortly after the launch of IUP’s residential revival, the University of Edinboro announced a $ 115 million construction project to replace dormitories and dining rooms.

State system records show that about $ 1.39 billion in debt remains in the residences of 13 of the 14 universities. Only the small University of Cheyney did not participate in the construction boom.

In total, student housing projects at public universities added about $ 1.6 billion in debt, much of which was written off under deals negotiated between university foundations, affiliated student associations and developers. private.

It was an exhilarating time in the schools charged with providing low-cost, high-quality college education to Pennsylvanians.

Enrollment rose to a record 119,500 students in 2010, as a wave of new high school graduates born in the 1980s fueled the increase.

But it was about to end.

State records show births in Pennsylvania, where universities draw 80 to 90 percent of their students, fell 15 percent between 1990 and 2000.

As of last fall, statewide enrollment was down by 25,800 students, a 22% drop from that high point a decade earlier.

Although the numbers in Pennsylvania were exacerbated by the state’s grizzled demographic profile, few colleges escaped last year’s declines.

Across the country, the National Student Clearinghouse reported that college enrollment fell 3.5% between spring 2020 and spring 2021, the largest year-over-year decline in a decade.

Across Pennsylvania, some universities have been more successful than others at filling dormitories.

In the fall of 2019, a year before the pandemic, Bloomsburg, Cheyney, Millersville, Shippensburg, Slippery Rock and West Chester had 90% to 100% occupancy rates in housing owned by universities and affiliates.

Elsewhere the picture was bleak. System-wide, about one in five beds was empty.

In the university residences of the IUP, the occupancy rate had fallen to 68%. In Edinboro, the occupancy rate was 42%. Elsewhere, it ranged from 56% at Lock Haven to 85% at East Stroudsburg.

Privately, some say the authorities have simply ignored population trends and oversized themselves. Several IUP faculty members recalled a rosy chatter ten years ago that enrollment would increase by 10,000 more students.

But recruiting drives fell short of the shrinking pool of new high school graduates and growing concerns about college costs that made some reluctant to swap student debt for a degree.

With debt relief underway, university and public system officials are looking for solutions to their problem.

Any proposal to sell buildings should address complex ownership structures. In many cases, universities have turned to their foundations to issue bonds for halls of residence, some of which are on state land leased from foundations and developers.

There are few alternative use models that could help pay for such facilities.

Although some universities have experimented with retreat villages on campus, they have limited themselves to expensive high-end developments rather than collective housing.

Last fall, The New York Times detailed how private developers scavenged unused college dorms in Tucson, Arizona and Manhattan and converted them to apartments in high-demand neighborhoods. Some developers predicted this trend would repeat itself as other universities seek to write off their debt.

But in the small towns where Pennsylvania state universities are located, some of the university properties are already competing with private landlords who are also struggling to rent units around schools with declining enrollment – some up. at 30% and 40% – and with reduced teachers and staff. recruitment.

At the IUP, before the pandemic, university spokeswoman Michelle Fryling said the school had made vacant rooms available to visitors during homecoming and parenting weeks. But there are no plans to open hostels on campus.

In the state system, where the administration is leading a plan to consolidate six struggling universities into two mega-institutions with six campuses by fall 2022, underutilized residences are a thorny challenge.

To date, 11 aging and underused buildings in Edinboro, IUP, Lock Haven and Mansfield, built between 1952 and 1978, have been targeted for demolition at an estimated cost of $ 21 million.

“At the system office what I can say is that the system has pursued a strategy with the demolition universities, and we are open to other ideas,” said PASSHE spokesperson David Pidgen. .

Deb Erdley is a writer for Tribune-Review. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, [email protected] or via Twitter .


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