To view the news package associated with this story, click the WHEE-TV broadcast above.
As enrollment rates continue to rise following the COVID-19 pandemic, many UNC System schools have been forced to find alternative housing solutions for their students.
According to a 2023 study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, there has been a 11.2% increase in freshman enrollment at public four-year universities since spring 2021.
This places stress on admissions and residential living offices alike.
At the beginning of 2023, UNC Charlotte was forced to relocate about 450 students to temporary housing because of a delay in housing construction. Most students were placed in on-campus buildings with another 100 moving into a local hotel. In 2022, around 100 NC A&T State freshmen started the school year from a hotel nearly five miles away from campus.
The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) saw their own housing problem in fall 2023. Put simply, too many freshmen were admitted to the school.
This left Kevin Meaney, UNCW director of housing and residence life in a tough position. The university had too many students for not enough beds.
Meaney explains that universities reach their peak applicants after July 4th. After that, the number usually declines until you reach May and deposits are filed. That decline is called a “melt”. In 2023 at UNCW, that melt never occurred.
UNCW’s next steps
When Meaney was first made aware that UNCW would have more students than beds, they reached out to juniors and seniors to entice them to live off campus to make room for the incoming class. UNCW went as far as offering rebates to students that live locally to commute to campus.
Placing students in a hotel was also an option for UNCW but Meaney disapproved of the option because it took students away from the campus community. Moving students to a hotel also would not have made sense financially. Hotels in the Wilmington area can easily exceed $200 per night in the summer months. Typically, Meaney said, if schools choose to place students in hotels, their best-case scenario is achieving net-zero, meaning they don’t lose or gain anything financially. This likely would not have been a possibility for UNCW.
The final course of action was to convert study rooms and TV lounges into livable rooms with beds, desks and wardrobes. From this, space for 240 students was created. As of Oct. 3, 93 UNCW students are still living in one of these rooms.
“It’s not ideal by any stretch of the imagination,” Meaney said, though he explains, it was the best course of action for the students and the university.
How the problem occurred
The problem for UNCW happened during the admissions process.
To gain context, The Western Carolinian spoke with WCU’s Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Mike Langford.
Langford said the admissions process isn’t as simple as getting applicants and hoping for the best. Langford says many admissions offices, like WCU’s, use formulas or data to predict patterns of student enrollment.
“It’s a numbers game. It’s not an exact science,” Langford said.
In UNCW’s case, the formula just didn’t work in 2023.
Meaney explained, usually, some students accept their offer letters and later decide they no longer want to attend their respective university. During the first weekend of move-in at UNCW, 28 students didn’t show up to campus. By the following Monday, that number fell to only two students.
“It’s a really strong class and they really want to be here,” Meaney said.
He said there is a concern that students in overflow housing may not enjoy their time at UNCW because they aren’t in the most ideal of living situations. In response to this, Meaney said staff are constantly checking in on those students.
When asked about UNCW’s two year on-campus residency requirement, Meaney was adamant about keeping the requirement in place.
“Any time they do research about it, the longer you stay on campus, the more likely you are to persist and graduate on-time,” Meaney said.
Meaney is referencing is a 2021 study by the Association of College and University
Housing Officers, finding that first year on-campus residents remained at their university at a 2% higher rate than students that lived off campus.
Meaney had a piece of advice for other UNC System schools that could find themselves in a similar situation as UNCW.
“You should be talking about overflow housing at first year summer orientation. Just be honest about it. Say, ‘we’re a popular school and a lot of students want to come here. There might be a situation where we have too many students and not enough beds and this is the way we handle it,’” he said.
Meaney said UNCW didn’t talk about the possibility of overflow housing during the summer because they didn’t see a reason to. This situation was very unexpected.
The bright spot for these students living in these rooms is a reduced price. For students staying in overflow housing in the newer residence halls, the semesterly price tag falls between $500-$700 less than the regular rate in that residence hall. For older residence halls, students in overflow housing are given a rebate of $150 per month they stay at the residence hall until they are offered the chance to move out of overflow housing. No matter where they are staying, students in overflow housing are getting the cheapest rate in their building.