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Displaced by COVID-19: Moving Out of College Housing

Jacob Jackson, Hans Johnson April 10, 2020
Photo of empty dorm room

With college students already taking courses online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many are also faced with moving out of campus housing. It’s a necessary disruption to help keep the virus from spreading, but one that can place students far from academic support and other services precisely when they need support and services most.

While the disruption is temporary, the benefits of being on or near campus go beyond proximity to classes. Campus housing gives students better access to tutoring, counseling, health, and academic services. For these and other reasons, students who live in university housing have higher persistence and graduation rates.

Nearly all colleges are urging students to move out, and the vast majority of university-housed students will likely leave—or have left—campus. Some colleges have allowed students to stay in housing if they choose, while others require students to leave unless they qualify for an exemption, such as for international students, for health and safety concerns, or if they do not have a home to return to.

Prior to the pandemic, about 24% of all undergraduate students, at least 177,000, lived in university owned or operated housing at California public and private nonprofit colleges, most commonly in dormitories. Most students living in college housing are at the University of California (UC) and private nonprofit universities, even though the California State University (CSU) system enrolls far more undergraduates. CSU students are much more likely to commute from home or an off-campus apartment. Community colleges, which educate the largest number of college students in the state, rarely own and operate their own housing.

figure - UC Has the Largest Share of Students Living in University-Operated Housing

Freshmen are especially likely to live in university housing, making up a slight majority (51%) of the total. About 90% of freshmen at UC and private nonprofits live in college-operated housing. If the pandemic continues to displace students into the fall semester, those colleges will have to grapple with how to help new students adapt to college without living on campus.

The consequences of this large-scale early departure from campus are uncertain. As students move off campus, schools are working to find ways to provide essential student supports and potentially offer new ones, such as laptops and internet access, to limit the disruption in learning.

One effort by the California College Student Emergency Support Fund offered $500 hardship grants for low-income students to help pay for housing, technology, and other expenses. Within 90 minutes of the launch of the application, 1,000 students had applied. Within 24 hours, demand had far surpassed resources, and 65,000 students were placed on a waiting list, suggesting that a significant unmet need remains.

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