What It Takes to Transform a Hotel Into a College Dorm
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This fall, 200 Florida Atlantic University students will be living in hotel rooms.
The arrangement isn’t new — the Boca Raton campus has for several years put up students in hotels when it ran out of on-campus housing — but this year’s number is a record high. Rent prices in Palm Beach County, where Florida Atlantic is located, have gone up by 32.3 percent, since 2019, pricing the average off-campus apartment at more than $2,100 per month. That’s driven up demand for on-campus housing, which costs $8,410 for the academic year. But with first-year students also enrolling in record-high numbers, the campus housing shortage has only worsened.
Florida Atlantic’s predicament has become increasingly common this year, and so has the solution: turning to hotels for additional beds. Other universities that will house students in hotels this fall include North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, and Tennessee State University.
But assigning students to hotel rooms is logistically complicated and can be expensive. Colleges often absorb the cost of leasing the rooms, providing transportation to campus, and sometimes even equipping the rooms with dorm furniture. To make matters worse, all of this typically happens on a tight timeline — often after enrollment deposits have come in, in early summer.
Every time it’s empty, it’s like an airplane seat that leaves empty. You don’t get that money back.
“While people are anticipating the possibility that they might have to use hotels, the actual decision tends to be a last-minute decision,” said Olan B. Garrett, finance and corporate records officer at the Association of College and University Housing Officers-International.
One reason for this: Increasingly unpredictable yield rates. Colleges rely on data from previous years to predict the number of accepted applicants who will ultimately enroll, but the Covid-19 pandemic has made it much harder to get that right.
“It has always been an issue for institutions to predict yield and to predict persistence rates,” said David W. Strauss, founder of the educational consulting firm Art & Science Group. But in the pandemic, it became “near impossible.”
Garrett said that before committing to a hotel deal, college-housing staff often try to transform doubles into triples and triples into quadruples. They identify lounges from every residence hall that can be converted into bedrooms. And when falling short of space on campus, they turn to hotels.
There are many considerations to be made before a deal is reached. For one, colleges will have to decide whether they’ll move students to on-campus housing if a room becomes available in the middle of the semester. And depending on how many beds are needed, an institution may not need the whole hotel building, which means students might share it with hotel guests.
“You have two separate groups of individuals living under two different sets of rules. You have students who are operating essentially under the rules of the institution, and then you have hotel guests who are working with hotel rules,” Garrett said. “So, communication about roles and responsibilities between the institution and the hotel is paramount.”
The hotel is often responsible for maintenance requests, such as lighting and heating issues. Meanwhile, the university provides on-site resident assistants and directors, who are either university employees or student workers. Resident staff are responsible for any student conflict that might arise. Cleaning services are often up for negotiation.
In terms of security, universities need to negotiate with the local police to reach an agreement on who’s patrolling and monitoring the area where the hotel is located. “Anytime you’re thinking about student housing, safety is always of utmost importance,” said Christine M. Smith, managing director of higher education at Baker Tilly, a consulting firm. “It’d be the same level of security that you see on campus.”
Smith advises colleges to anticipate any kind of risk or liability that can arise from temporarily housing students in hotels, and to plan accordingly.
Recreating the Dorm Experience
While decisions are driven by numbers, institutions need to focus on the student experience, experts said.
“This is an area where you don’t want to just act on the financial and head-count aspect of things,” Strauss said. “If you’re moving first-year students into something very different than what they expected, there’s a danger of both disrupting the quality of their experience but also their adhesion to the institutions.”
At Florida Atlantic, administrators have learned from several years of housing students in hotels and are trying to create a more welcoming and community-oriented experience for students. While they would previously move students from the hotel to on-campus housing in the middle of a semester as rooms become available when students drop out or take a leave of absence, now they wait until after finals to ensure students are able to build relationships and have a solid support system throughout the whole semester.
“From the perspective of roommates and community transition, once they’re situated in the hotel, we feel like they’ll have their foundation of life so that they can then focus on academics,” said Larry Faerman, Florida Atlantic’s vice president for student affairs.
Faerman said the university plans to move all students back to campus by the end of the fall semester.
“Typically, between fall and spring, we have historically had new spring students move onto campus. So, we’ll limit some of that to ensure that we have enough beds for these students to come onto campus,” Faerman said. Some students graduate in December, while others leave to pursue internship opportunities.
One of the main issues students are concerned about while living in a hotel is their access to campus life, especially when living in areas where public transportation is not readily available.
The two hotels leased by Florida Atlantic are less than two miles away from campus, and the university will provide a shuttle-bus service on a rotating schedule. The service is a new investment specific to students living in hotels. Faerman said the university is absorbing all additional costs related to the hotels, but he didn’t respond to a question about how much money the university had budgeted.
The university will also offer programming similar to what’s available on campus, including floor meetings and community events.
Despite colleges’ best efforts, some obstacles still prevent hotels from feeling like dormitories. Florida Atlantic students aren’t allowed to bring additional furniture and need to work with traditional hotel furnishings. Double rooms in hotels have only one closet, dresser, and desk, and roommates need to share it all. The hotels also don’t have laundry machines, and students need to bring their laundry to campus to use dorm laundry rooms.
Some colleges, though, have taken extra measures to recreate the dormitory experience.
In the 2020-21 academic year, the University of Pittsburgh leased three hotels to accommodate about 1,000 students in its plan to “dedensify” campus amid higher enrollment and Covid-19. The university brought long twin beds, dressers, and desks into the hotels. Students were allowed to decorate if they didn’t damage the walls.
Sophia I. Hernandez, a first-year student in 2020, shared on TikTok how she decorated her room at the Wyndham Hotel, and the video went viral.
The following year, the university leased one hotel because of a surge in enrollment. As first reported by University Times, Pitt expected about 4,300 first-year students but enrolled about 5,100. By the fall of 2021, first-year enrollment was up by 23 percent from 2019.
“We wanted to make sure that the hotels could resemble life in a residence hall,” said Matthew Sterne, vice chancellor for business services at the University of Pittsburgh. He said institutions need to provide a consistent experience for all students.
Cocoro Kambayashi was a first-year student at Pittsburgh when she was assigned to live in a hotel room in 2020. She enjoyed the privacy the hotel environment provided, but at the same time felt that it limited her interactions with other students.
“One thing that was lacking from the hotel was the fact that I didn’t make that many friends, just because everyone was so far apart. You can’t really go around and meet people, in contrast to dorm rooms where everyone’s so close to each other,” she said.
Kambayashi wishes she’d had opportunities to get to know the people living around her, and advises first-year students living in hotels to knock on doors and introduce themselves.
Despite that, Kambayashi had an overall positive experience and said she could get to her classes easily.
For Pittsburgh, the cost of temporarily transforming hotels into dormitories was high. As first reported by The Pitt News, the university’s board of trustees unanimously approved a $22 million budget to lease the three local hotels for about 1,000 students for the year. It’s unclear whether the university spent all of the allotted money, but it amounts to $22,000 per student, which is about $10,000 more than what the university charges for on-campus housing.
“There was a cost to leasing these hotels, which was more than what the students paid,” Sterne said. “And the university absorbed the difference. We did not pass it on to the students.”
Sterne said that many universities absorbed costs related to Covid-19, not just for housing, but also for testing and to-go dining.
After two academic years leasing the Marriott Residence Inn at Pittsburgh University Medical Center, the university purchased the hotel for $32 million and is converting it into apartment-style housing.
Most colleges make money on room charges. It’s a nice profit center.
But not all colleges have the financial ability to buy hotels to expand their on-campus housing, and leasing hotels is the best they can do in the short term.
“It’s very easy to lose money on that because most schools make money from room charges. It’s a nice profit center,” said Kent J. Chabotar, a former college president and founding partner of MPK&D Consulting. “And so, when you send the students off campus, unless you’ve negotiated a really good price with the hotel, you’re losing out on that money.”
If costs associated with the hotel lease are higher than the built-in profit margin in student-housing fees, institutions have to find the money elsewhere. Chabotar said it often comes out of either the auxiliary-enterprises budget or the institution’s general budget.
Universities don’t benefit from having to lease a hotel for student housing because of overenrollment, but they lose money if they underenroll and find themselves with empty beds.
“Every time it’s empty, it’s like an airplane seat that leaves empty. You don’t get that money back,” Chabotar said.
Because a percentage of students drop out every year, universities anticipate that beds will become available as the semester goes on. From this perspective, overadmitting can help institutions reach their enrollment goals after some students drop out.
A Temporary Fix to a Deeper Problem
Kimera Way, president of the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Foundation, said that for decades the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire had a housing shortage. It had about 104-percent occupancy, which led the institution to start leasing hotel rooms for students.
It was never intended to be a permanent solution, and eventually, the university was able to build student housing off campus. But that comes with its own set of challenges.
Way said that when universities creep into the surrounding area, questions are raised about taxes, parking, and community relationships. “If they buy a hotel, especially, that was a hotel that was a taxable property. And then if the university buys it as a nontaxable entity, they’re taking a taxable property off the tax rolls,” she said. “That’s usually the biggest conflict with the city. And usually, they end up coming to an agreement with a pilot payment in lieu of taxes, so that the city is recouping at least some revenue.”
In addition, many residents are unhappy with the influx of students in their neighborhoods and how that changes daily life.
While institutions raise funds and negotiate long-term solutions, admissions and student affairs staff must keep playing the numbers game.