Dorms at Iowa universities lose tens of million in pandemic

Iowa State plans to close four residence halls this fall

After the COVID-19 pandemic was confirmed in Iowa last year, students on March 19, 2020, move their belongings out of Cu
After the COVID-19 pandemic was confirmed in Iowa last year, students on March 19, 2020, move their belongings out of Currier Residence Hall during a scheduled move-out from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. In a new report to the Board of Regents, the UI reported losing $17.4 million in its dorm operation after the campuses shifted online, refunded residence hall students for the balance of their contracts and canceled summer camps and conferences. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

The room-and-board operations across Iowa’s public universities lost tens of millions over the last year due to refunds, enrollment drops, contract cancellations and new expenses propelled by the pandemic, according to a new Board of Regents report cataloging the residence hall system woes and outlook.

Although the universities expect some rebound, officials aren’t projecting a complete return to pre-COVID-19 norms, prompting changes across the campuses — including more single rooms, amped up efforts to keep second- and third-year students in campus housing, and shuttering some residence halls.

Iowa State University, for one, plans to temporarily close four residence halls next academic year — eliminating 1,832 beds and saving $2.5 million.

“If we tried to occupy all buildings for fall 2021, we would be projecting about 3,000 vacancies across the system and at least a $2 million shortfall,” according to a recent ISU update.

At the University of Iowa, “refunds issued in spring 2020, the reduced occupancy of academic year 2020-21, the cancellation of summer camps and conferences for summer 2020 and likely summer 2021, the inability to cater events, and the closures/reduced volumes in the retail dining operations have all combined to deplete the residence system’s once-healthy reserve balances.”

Dorm occupancy rates in fall 2020 dipped from 94 to 78 percent at the UI, amounting to 1,115 fewer students or 18 percent under the previous year.

Rates fell from 94 to 82 percent at ISU, which reported 1,799 fewer students, a 17 percent drop.

And they slipped from 85 to 80 percent at the University of Northern Iowa, which saw 244 fewer students, an 8 percent decline.

Financial toll

After the campuses shifted online in spring 2020 and refunded residence hall students for the balance of their contracts — and then canceled summer camps and conferences — the UI reported losing $17.4 million and the ISU lost nearly $15 million.


Although UNI didn’t spell out its losses from the spring shift, its net revenue in the housing and dining enterprise was $1.6 million below budget and $4.1 million less than the previous budget year.

Net revenue for ISU was $2.3 million under budget and $13.5 million less than last year — a 43 percent drop. UI net revenue slid $1.5 million under budget and $9.3 million below last year — a 37 percent loss. All three campuses took measures to buffer the blow, like furloughs at the UI.

Although fall 2020 started relatively well — considering the pandemic — the campuses reported widespread losses throughout the semester due to in-person classes shifting online and later allowances for contract cancellations, among other things.

Between the first day of fall semester move in and the extended cancellation deadline, UI Housing and Dining released 702 students from their residence hall contracts — amounting to an estimated semester revenue loss of $3.67 million.

Of those 702 students who left UI housing in the fall, just 120 returned this spring, “resulting in another estimated $3 million loss of revenue for the spring,” according to the UI report to regents.

ISU reported similar challenges. Upon announcing in June 2020 that on-campus housing would be open in the fall, student contracts jumped from 9,407 to 9,727. But due to changes in course-delivery methods, room capacities and later release options, “contract cancellations were received in August at an unprecedented rate, resulting in a fall occupancy of 8,658.”

“The shift in occupancy as well as higher than normal attrition from fall to spring has resulted in estimated lost contract revenue of approximately $6 million,” ISU officials reported to the regents, noting another $3 million loss from lessened retail and catering operations.

Looking ahead

UI admissions indicators project an entering class of 4,800 first-time, straight-from-high school students next fall — a bump up from the “extraordinarily small fall 2020 first-year class of 4,530.”

That has housing occupancy projections improving in the next budget year — although not rising to pre-pandemic levels of 6,333 and 94 percent occupancy.


In fact, UI Housing’s long-term outlook keeps occupancy numbers below last budget year, inducing administrative plans to “actively market and retain a larger number of returning students in the residence halls,” according to the report.

In fall 2020, for example, the university reduced the density in its Mayflower Residence Hall to create more single rooms for returning students — like sophomores and juniors.

“This effort proved successful, as nearly 1,200 students applied to return to the residence halls,” the report said.

In its regents report, ISU acknowledged soaring student enrollment from 2013 to 2016 spurred massive housing growth both on and off campus — with 8,000 beds added in the Ames community.

Now that enrollment has waned to pre-2013 levels, “students currently have more options (available at better price points as competition between off-campus properties increases) which has impacted demand for on-campus housing.”

ISU said it will reopen shuttered halls as necessary. And it’s projecting an occupancy next fall of 9,250, meaning contract revenues could “recover some.” The campus’ dining operation has a similar positive take given “The Odyssey of the Mind” is holding its world competition on the Ames campus in May — drawing, according to organizers, 20,000 students and supporters from around the world — which will continue in even-numbered years through 2026.

UNI’s housing occupancy totals aren’t expected to go back to pre-pandemic levels at least in the next five years — in part intentionally “to meet student desires for more single rooms in upper-division housing.”

“Other income is budgeted to remain low from continued reductions in retail, conference, and catering activity,” according to UNI report, which detailed a new program that commits new students to living on campus for two years.


“All new students who agree to live on campus for two years will receive a $500 scholarship the following academic year,” the report said.

New rates

The three campuses propose different housing rate changes depending on their competitive environments with other universities and operational needs. The housing and dining operations are self-supporting.

Proposed rate changes for the most popular double room and standard meal plan are 2.7 percent more at the UI; 1.1 percent less at ISU; and no change at UNI.


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