UMass to Boost Housing

01/22/2009
By From the Boston Globe

By Jennifer Fenn Lefferts

In an effort to attract and retain more top students, the University of Massachusetts at Lowell will spend the next five years trying to meet a growing demand for campus housing.
 
As part of an ambitious plan that calls for 2,000 new beds by 2014, UMass-Lowell recently announced an $11.8 million renovation to Fox Hall, the university's largest dorm, that will add space for 119 students.

"We lose highly qualified students because we don't have housing," said UMass-Lowell chancellor Marty Meehan. "As we seek to improve student standards, we need to have adequate housing."

After Meehan took over as chancellor in 2007, he set a goal of having an equal mix of resident and commuter students by 2014. That means the university must nearly double its housing capacity from 2,300 beds to 4,300. UMass-Lowell has traditionally been a commuter school, with 75 percent of its students living off campus.

Meehan said he set the goal because more students are looking for campus housing and to add to the university experience. He said studies have shown that students who live on campus perform better academically, become engaged in campus life, and are more likely to stay in school and graduate.

"It improves student success rates," Meehan said.

This year, the university cut its commuter numbers to 68 percent, Meehan said, but it wasn't easy. The university expected a 10 percent increase in its freshman class but instead saw it rise by 24 percent, said Larry Siegel, dean of students. Its transfer-student numbers also jumped more than expected and fewer students than usual dropped out.

The university has 7,300 undergraduate students and 2,800 graduate day students.

As of July, the university had a 400-person waiting list for housing, Siegel said.

"All those facts led us to a real crisis in July," Siegel said. "We had 400 kids who wanted to live here that we didn't have room for."

The university rented 25 three-person apartments off campus and put up an additional 250 students in a Nashua hotel. The remaining 75 students went on a waiting list.

Siegel said the solution was far from ideal, but the school had to get creative.

"We found ourselves in such a desperate need for housing," he said. "It was clear students wanted to be on campus or at least adjacent to campus and not in another state."

University officials say they are looking at options for the fall semester and that includes the renovation of Fox Hall. The dorm building, which is near LeLacheur Park, has 18 floors and 546 beds, but not all floors have been used for housing.

Demolition is underway on three floors that had primarily been used as office and classroom space. The new units will be clustered together to allow 15 to 18 students to reside together with their own bathrooms and lounges. The hope is that by clustering students with common interests they will develop strong friendships and have a better university experience, Siegel said.

While those 119 beds will help, Siegel said it won't be enough. He said the university's goal is to increase campus housing by 400 to 600 beds by September.

Siegel said the university will consider leasing apartments, leasing entire buildings, or purchasing a building. Another year at the Radisson in Nashua is not out of the question but is the least desirable option, Siegel said.

The university had hoped to add 400 beds for next September by leasing space in a dormitory that would have been built by a developer. However, the project was halted when the state attorney general's office ruled that the university had violated public bidding laws.

Meehan said he is confident the university will find other options. With the real estate downturn, Meehan said the university can buy housing at 30 percent of the cost of new construction.

"We've been engaged in attempting to buy other real estate, and I think we'll have some success," Meehan said.

The university does plan to build a dormitory on the east campus that will be open in three years.

Nicole Gordon, the residence director at the university's Radisson housing, said more students are looking to live on campus because it makes for a better college experience.

"There's a different sense of community," she said. "You feel more connected to the school."

Gordon said she has seen more students get involved in activities and sporting events.

"Living on campus really gives people that sense of togetherness."

City officials and neighborhood groups are aware of the need for student housing and support the effort as long as it is near other university buildings.

Paul Belley, chairman of the Pawtucketville Citizens Council, which represents a neighborhood close to the college, said the group has had a good relationship with the university and has had few problems with students.

"Neighbors prefer it remain on campus as opposed to moving into the neighborhoods," Belley said.

George Proakis, the planning and permitting director for the city, said moving the students out of the neighborhoods will free up more housing for families.

"You open up some of the three-and four bedroom units and are able to offer an opportunity for family housing," he said. "More and more students here want to live on campus and we'd rather they work to meet their housing needs on campus."