Colleges scouting extra beds as freshman housing crunch looms

What do you do with as many as 300 extra freshmen? That's what housing directors at colleges and universities across the United States have been asking themselves all summer.

After a spring of drastically increased freshman enrollment unanticipated by admissions offices, admissions personnel may be scratching their heads but housing departments are left holding the ball.

With only weeks left to provide rooms for unexpected students, many housing officials are converting double rooms into triples or putting beds and desks in student lounges.

Others unable to expand on-campus housing beyond its present capacity are seeking alternative solutions. Some schools are resorting for the first time to their right to rescind offers of admission because of poor performance. For colleges that do not normally keep close tabs on students' spring grades, careful monitoring of year-end transcripts helps lighten the overflow of incoming freshmen.

Some, like Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., or Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, N.Y., are strongly encouraging upperclassmen to find noncollege-owned housing off campus.

Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., is responding to 224 additional first-year students by allowing some freshmen to live in Lehigh-owned apartment buildings usually saved for older students.

Yale University is compensating for a slightly increased freshman class by restricting all transfer students to January arrival, rather than having them start at Yale in September.

Other colleges are simply planning to house extra students temporarily in campus study rooms or nearby hotels until they find adequate space.

According to Linda M. Kreamer, director of admissions at the University of Vermont, many housing crunches work themselves out in a few weeks. Typically, a number of students choose to move off campus or decide to drop out of college altogether within the first weeks of the fall semester. Some who have enrolled simply never arrive. Since these ``no-shows'' rarely inform a school of their final decision not to attend, it often takes about a month to discover all of the empty beds.

Most colleges planning to place students in tighter housing arrangements this fall are wary of angering incoming freshmen and their tuition-paying parents with cramped quarters. The University of New Hampshire in Durham will be housing some first-year students in ``built-up doubles'' but plans to reduce rent accordingly.

``In the past, students have all been able to adjust successfully to that situation,'' says Stanwood C. Fish, University of New Hampshire's dean of admissions. ``Often they don't want to be separated later on [when more spacious housing becomes available].''

While solutions to the immediate housing dilemma are plentiful and varied, no one seems able to account for the cause of the problem: the sudden jump in freshman enrollment across the country.

In recent years, college admissions officials have been focusing their efforts on stepped-up marketing in response to a declining national pool of 18-year-olds.

While schools received record numbers of applications this spring, most members of the admissions community attributed it to a growing sophistication of high school seniors, who - despite $30 to $50 application fees - now often apply to 10 or 20 colleges. Based on the demographic predictions of fewer 18-year-olds, most schools were ready for a decrease in enrollment that would send them to their waiting lists in May.

Some have suggested that increased enrollment is a result of high school seniors who buy time for decisionmaking by reserving space at more than one college with hefty $200 deposits. But many schools have been sharing enrollment information for years, specifically to track down and end such ``double depositing.'' And those who compare notes, says Ms. Kreamer, don't usually find much overlap.

Others speculate that the promise of a liberal-arts education at a four-year college or university is drawing students away from two-year colleges and technical schools. But members of the admissions community say that enrollment is increasing at vocational schools, although it's still too early to support that theory with actual enrollment figures.

While some admissions officials say that schools somewhere must be paying a price for the sudden popularity of other colleges, no one seems able to pinpoint the losers. Many suspect that schools which are suffering smaller enrollments are not making their problem known. According to Mr. Fish, ``if the word goes out that your product is being discounted or discredited, the effects will be multiplied.''

The most common explanation for the flood of incoming freshmen is simply that more high school graduates are attending college. But admissions officials hasten to add that it's still too early to know.

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