IOWA CITY — Lots of lamps and linens, shirts and shoes, pictures and pillows made their way into University of Iowa residence halls Tuesday — the first official move-in day for new students.
But top of mind for many students wasn’t so much their new digs or belongings, but rather new friends, communities and connections.
“We’re amazing together,” UI freshman Hannah McCreight, 18, of Steamboat Springs, Colo., said about her roommate, whom she met at orientation and has been corresponding with since December. “Awesome roommate. Love her to death.”
The University of Iowa expects 6,180 students to live in its residence halls this fall — below its capacity of 6,266 after years of being maxed out for space, requiring waitlists and temporary housing that sometimes crammed students into spaces meant to be lounges.
UI recently expanded on-campus housing with the addition of 501 beds in a new Mary Louise Petersen Residence Hall on the west side of campus in fall 2015 and another 1,049 beds in the Elizabeth Catlett Residence Hall on the east side last fall.
Still, this year’s residence hall occupants are below years’ past — as UI reported its total occupancy last fall at 6,424 and in fall 2016 at 6,864, according to Board of Regents reports.
Mandatory on-campus living
UI — like Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa — doesn’t require first-year students to live on campus, although 95 percent do, according to a recent report. And UI officials are weighing a change that would mandate on-campus residency not only for first-year students but for those in their second year, only 15 percent of whom currently live in a residence hall.
The change could address housing challenges facing the cities of Iowa City and Coralville while also tackling a persistent issue across higher education: retention. UI officials have touted the power of connections in keeping students enrolled, and they’ve pointed to residence living as one way to root students in communities that serve as support systems through academic and social challenges.
For years, UI required all students living on campus to join a “living learning community” that grouped them by interest or identity — including ones titled “Young, Gifted and Black” or “BizHawks.” Starting this fall, LLCs no longer are mandatory, though officials still encourage students to get involved and connected.
Requiring on-campus living, whether in an LLC or not, could be one way to ensure students are tethered to their academic pursuits, according to a March 2017 report jointly commissioned by UI, Iowa City and Coraville.
Advisory firm Brailsford & Dunlavey prepared a strategic housing master plan in response — in part — to several community challenges, like loss of affordable housing options close to downtown Iowa City, increased pressure on rental options due to UI enrollment growth, more graduate students in the private rental market, and a proliferation of renter-occupied houses in neighborhoods meant to be owner-occupied.
The plan pitched a requirement for second-year UI students to live on campus as one possible way to divert students from the neighborhoods, but consultants warned that method would require significant housing expansion on campus, which currently is under a building moratorium due to budget cuts.
Based on enrollment projections, the university would need to add 2,845 to 3,465 beds by 2025 to accommodate first- and second-year students.
“The assumption was that five, 600-bed facilities would be constructed,” according to the report.
UI officials said they appreciate the plan and are reviewing the data, “which will help us make informed decisions about student housing over the next several years.” But, according to Von Stange, senior director of University Housing and Dining, the report’s findings are based on a “snapshot in time” and represent years when the UI student body was growing “exponentially.”
The campus recently has measured its growth with state funding declines — forcing tuition hikes, pay freezes and the closure of several UI centers, in addition to the construction halt.
Stange said UI is exploring several options “to enhance student success and retention rates,” including requiring students to live on campus for their first two years. The campus is in the early stages of that exploration — creating a task force to implement a “second-year experience housing pilot program” for fall 2019.
“We are exploring this option because our top priority is the success of our students, and students who live on campus tend to have more academic success,” Stange said.
He did not release further details of what the program might entail.
But some of the newest UI residents on Tuesday seemed more than amendable to a potential residence hall requirement, as several said they’re already hoping to live on campus past their first year.
“I personally would want to live here my sophomore year,” said UI freshman Abby Holtz, 18, of Manchester, who moved into Burge Residence Hall over the weekend as part of an early move-in opportunity. “It’s such a convenient place, and it’s so easy for students to make friends and be close to all the life there is in Iowa City.”
Even outside the structure provided by an LLC, Holtz said, residence hall living has made introductions easy.
“All I did was keep my door open and people were stopping in, saying hi, introducing themselves,” she said. “That was really awesome, a really easy way to meet people.”
Isaac Embrock, 18, of Emmetsburg, said he supports mandatory first- and second-year residency, as he believes some don’t necessarily view it as an option until it’s too late.
“I’ve been told by a lot of people — they say, ‘I wish I would have stayed another year,’” he said. “I probably will stay here two years.”
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