Some colleges facing financial fall as more students choose off campus housing amid COVID-19

By Madison Weber ’23, Staff Writer and Social Media Editor

A sign on a dorm room reads "upper quad, maximum security prison." In the spring semester of 2021, many students are contemplating if returning to campus is worth it after so many COVID-19 changes to on-campus life. (Cardinal Courier Photo by Madison Weber)

With students transitioning to all online or hybrid classes, some are entertaining the conversation if returning to campus is worth it. 

According to recent news reports, SUNY Brockport announced it is facing a $10 million budget gap for the spring 2021 semester due to far fewer students returning to campus. At St. John Fisher College, some students felt similar about returning to campus.

“It wasn’t worth the money to live on campus and take two in person classes,” Sophomore Annie Ernstberger said. 

Ernstberger and fellow sophomore Riley Magin have experienced only one “normal” semester. Magin, a Pennsylvania native, was tired of uprooting her life on such short notice and to then be so far away from work, Fisher campus and her friends. For her, the best solution this spring seemed to be moving into a Rochester area apartment with several other friends who had also elected to move off campus. Magin was frustrated with the restraints placed on resident students, and felt that COVID-19 “ruined college dorm living.”

Ernstberger, although she does miss her independence, also made the decision to move back home for the semester. With visiting hours and weekly testing, Ernstberger feels the college is doing a better job at handling dorm living this semester than last, however was unaware of these changes when she pulled her housing contract. 

Both Magin and Ernstberger are no longer paying for dorm fees and have no meal plan — something that Brockport cited in their report as a major financial loss for the college. While Ernstberger misses the independence she had living on campus, she admits it is easier and less stressful. “It was hard to watch some people go out and ignore the rules, while I was paying to be miserable.” Another real reality of living on campus for Ernstberger was the constant threat of contracting COVID-19 from peers.

(Cardinal Courier Photo by Madison Weber)

Magin and Ernstberger may not be the only students electing to move off campus, as St. John Fisher did see a drop in residential students this semester, according to data provided by the school’s Director of Marketing and Communications Kate Torok. In the fall semester of 2020, 1,393 students were living on campus and the school originally expected 1,315 to return for the spring semester  — about 6% lower due to COVID-19, as well as students who would graduate in the fall. However, even though the school was able to surpass the estimated enrollments in both headcount and credit hours, nearly 17% of previously on-campus students made the decision to live elsewhere — leaving 1,125 residential students this semester.

This extra space in residential halls this semester has allowed the school to isolate and quarantine students on campus this semester, rather than sending them off campus.

If room charges for all those students were the standard of about $4,000 per student each semester, losing 268 on-campus students would mean a roughly estimated financial loss of about $1,072,000 for the school. This is not including the additional financial loss of less students with meal plans, or those downgrading to a commuter meal plan.

Compared to her freshman fall, Magin admitted to not enjoying on campus living during the COVID-19 pandemic. “The entire atmosphere of Fisher changed.” Magin understands that the entire school is in unsure times. “Everyone has to sacrifice something, we sacrificed a normal college career.” Looking back, Ernstberger said she is incredibly grateful that she had the chance at one normal semester to have fun and make friends, as she’s aware that not everyone at Fisher had that opportunity.

As of now, neither Ernstberger nor Magin have plans to move back on campus in the future.

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