UAA housing struggles with occupancy rates

UAA On-Campus Living is experiencing major occupancy struggles this academic year. From the 866 beds available in the residence halls, only 741 were occupied in the fall. This spring, the numbers dropped to 638, resulting in an occupancy of 74 percent. A negative trend has been continuing for the past few years.

The capacity of the UAA residential campus is already small relative to the total number of UAA students, David Weaver, director of UAA Housing, Dining and Conference Services said.

“It definitely reflects that we’re an urban commuter university,” Weaver said.

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In the 2010-2011 academic year, over 90 percent of residence halls were used by students. Seven years later, budget cuts and enrollment declines have caused that occupancy to drop by 10 and 16.4 percent in the fall and spring semesters respectively. Photo credit: Jian Bautista

In the academic year of 2010-2011, the occupancy rate was around 95 percent in the fall and 90 percent in the spring. Compared to this year’s data, this means a decrease of about 10 percentage points in both fall and spring. This is the lowest fall occupancy UAA housing has ever experienced, Weaver said.

He believes that the trend is driven by financial reasons rather than by the conditions of the housing community.

“In fact, we’ve done major renovations in the last years,” Weaver said. “The residential campus is probably better than it’s ever been.”

The Department of Residence Life conducted a survey about the satisfaction of students living on-campus in the fall semester. Most of the 177 participating students seemed to be satisfied with their residential community; nine in 10 residents reported feeling welcome in the on-campus community and enjoying university housing.

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Weaver is convinced that the economic situation of the state is the primary reason for the decline in occupancy.

“The state in general is struggling with an economic recession, so students and their families are making choices that they may not have made four or five years ago,” Weaver said. “Students choose to go part time instead of full time and potentially take more online classes so they can work more.”

Demographic factors might also play into the occupancy decline, Weaver said, pointing to a decrease of births in Alaska about 20 years ago.

“What we’re now seeing, as they [the babies born around 2000] have gone though the pipeline of elementary… and high school, that there are just fewer [students],” Weaver said. “The overall head count at UAA is down. Just enrollment in general is down. Therefore, it is not surprising that the occupancy of the residential campus is also down.”

He also thinks that the number students choosing to live on campus is “inversely correlated” with tuition costs. Tuition increased considerable over the past years — having this additional financial burden might make it more difficult for students to pay for the dorms.

Semester room prices were the point that most participants criticized in the residence life survey. Forty seven percent of participants think the room costs should be lower. Prices start at $3,150 per semester for a shared bedroom in one of the three residence halls; private rooms in the apartments cost up to $3,925 a semester.

Christopher Brake, a junior geomatics major, lived in the Templewood Apartments during his first year at college. He is an out-of-state student and moved off-campus as a sophomore. The housing prices were a major factor in his decision.

Even with the costs of a car and car insurance, off-campus living is still cheaper for him than living on-campus.

“If I was still living in the Templewood Apartments, I would be paying a lot more,” Brake said. “It also feels nice to actually live in a house.”

Other students still prefer the residence community to off-campus housing. Kaleb Korta, a sophomore construction management major from rural Alaska, has been living on-campus for two years now.

“A big reason that I chose to live in the dorms… for the first two years of college was the simplicity,” Korta said. “Coming from a small town of only 450 people and it being the first time ever moving, I knew that it would be a big adjustment. I wanted to minimize factors that would take my focus away from my education… and I can walk or bike everywhere I need to go.”

To keep on-campus living affordable for students, UAA housing had to make some strategic changes. These changes included cutting landline phones and leasing empty apartments to other university affiliated programs and non-traditional college students.

“We’ve leased an entire floor of one of the residence halls to the [Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program] middle school program, because we’ve had these hundreds of extra beds,” Weaver said. “That’s really helped us maintain our revenue stream and cover our costs.”

For the coming years, Weaver is cautiously optimistic.

“Our numbers actually haven’t changed much from last year, so we kind of hope that we’ve hit a plateau,” Weaver said. “One thing I’m proud of is that despite the lowest fall occupancy in years and years… we are going to be able to not raise prices for next year.”

Students can address any issues concerning the residential community directly with housing directly or the Residence Hall Association, the student governing body for on-campus residents. Their next meeting is scheduled for March 11 in the Gorsuch Commons.