Clarity on the PLNU Housing Crisis

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As an out-of-state student, I began my first year at Point Loma Nazarene University in the Fall of 2020 when just under 800 students lived on campus due to COVID-19-related restrictions. 

While all students took classes remotely and watched chapel recordings on YouTube, those who lived on campus also grabbed to-go meals from the Caf, socially distanced and masked up, and the majority lived in single dorms that semester. 

Student and school-led clubs and activities were also either held remotely or completely put on hold; PLNU was seemingly deserted, rather than a lively communal campus. Already a small university, this only emphasized how PLNU is dependent on its student body.

While I was grateful to even step foot on campus in this tranquil era, there were times when this tranquility was perceived more as isolation, and I questioned whether the university’s amiable culture (that I had only heard about) would ever return. 

Nevertheless, many on-campus students, including myself, tried to make the most of the unprecedented times, and as restrictions slowly peeled away in the semesters to follow, the original state of PLNU’s atmosphere emerged.

Bleachers are now full at main sporting events, extracurricular activities have returned and we see our professors in person on a day-to-day basis. Whether you were in high school or university at the time, the pandemic stripped away the relational aspects of those institutions and reminded us of the importance of being together —in person— and connected. PLNU’s community, which was once coveted by our pre-enrolled selves, is now coveted by current and prospective students.

PLNU enrolled 4,319 students in 2022, which is a 5% decrease from 4,567 in 2019. This differs from some of the enrollment trends of other Christian universities in Southern California, as COVID-19 hindered enrollment rates over the past three years. 

Azusa Pacific University (APU) enrolled 7,120 students for the 2022-23 school year compared to 9,501 for the 2019-20 calendar, a 25% drop. Biola University enrolled 5,387 students for 2022-23, an 11% decrease from their 2019-20 enrollment of 6,103. Evidently, PLNU’s enrollment rate decreased significantly less than APU and Biola, yet we still have a higher capacity of students to house. 

In Fall of 2022, PLNU enrolled 4,319 students, a nearly 3% decrease from 2021’s enrollment of 4,450. However, the contrary occurred for the number of first-year students enrolled. This year, 688 first-time undergraduate students enrolled in the institution, which is almost a 4% increase from the previous year’s 662.

While this is great news in any higher education context, it has posed many challenges in the university’s housing context. This led the Residential Life and Housing Office (ResLife) to put many first-year students in triple dorms instead of doubles, which has provoked dismay among these incoming students.

My hope is for current students, especially those who have been wedged into a triple dorm, to acknowledge that their substandard housing conditions are a result of our exit from the COVID-19 epoch and to maybe even find some gratitude for ResLife’s efforts to appropriately accommodate housing for the on-campus student body, through a much-needed clarification of what many deem as PLNU’s ‘housing crisis.’

I’m certain that few of us have actually done research on the current overcrowded housing on campus, or even had the guts to lumber our way to the third floor of Nicholson Commons to voice our concerns to the honchos of ResLife. Rather, many of us, including myself, have expressed frustration to our peers or over the phone through tears to mom and dad, hoping that ResLife will somehow hear us that way.

Of course, it makes sense why we reach out to our parents with concern; higher education is an investment, and many of our parents play a role in covering some, if not all, of the costly nature of attending college.

Education Data Initiative reported that the average in-state student attending a public four-year university spends $25,707, and their out-of-state counterparts spend an average of $27,279 for one academic year. The average private, nonprofit university student spends a total of $54,501 per year, just $2K short of PLNU’s 2023-24 first-year freshman or transfer student estimated cost of $55,924.

Honing in on the cost of PLNU’s on-campus housing is the $11,600 check, which is estimated to cover next year’s annual housing cost and cheapest meal plan. Is it even worth it? Compared to other San Diego universities, both public and private, PLNU’s housing rates ring up less.

San Diego State University’s (SDSU) 2023-24 first-year housing rates start at $18,469 for triple and quad dorms with their most inexpensive meal plan, and shoot up to $23,781 for a single dorm with their highest-costing meal plan. For SDSU second–year students and upperclassmen, housing rates range from $9,637 to $22,525, depending on room type and meal plan.

At our neighboring private institution, the University of San Diego, the housing and meal for the next academic year is estimated to cost $16,380.

At PLNU, first and second-year students are required to live on campus unless they live with their immediate family locally, while third-year, fourth-year and transfer students can live off-campus. Prior to COVID-19, it was more common for upperclassmen to utilize this opportunity.

However, Dean of Students Jake Gilbertson said that recent housing trends have pushed more sophomores, juniors, seniors and transfer students to want to and/or need to live on campus, these trends being the cost of rent in San Diego’s wince-inducing housing market.

The San Diego rental market is among the most expensive in the nation. In February, the Times of San Diego reported that the local rent growth over the past year has outpaced the state average of 2.3% and the national average, 3.3% as well. Overall, rents in San Diego are up by 24% since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.”

Rents had gone up almost 10% for the year through August 2022, which contributed to over 100 students being on the on-campus housing waitlist at the beginning of the summer.

Currently, the median rent in San Diego is $1,915 for a one-bedroom apartment and $2,468 for a two-bedroom, according to the Times of San Diego.

As the fall semester approached, concerned families contacted assistant director for housing and resident director of Finch Residence hall, Amy Dickerson, explaining that their student would not be able to come to PLNU if they did not have on-campus housing. 

“Many of them had even applied to go off campus and then couldn’t find housing and then came back asking ‘Please find me a spot in on-campus housing, I’ll go anywhere,’” Dickerson said.

Hopefully, this answers the question of why the university doesn’t force all upperclassmen to live off campus, for those who wallow in this thought.

To make sure that more second, third, fourth-year and transfer students were guaranteed housing, many double dorms in freshmen residence halls were converted into triples. The university offers a housing discount for students placed in triples.

“Last year, our freshman class was slightly larger than what we anticipated,” Gilbertson said. “What happens then, is that freshmen get tripled in the freshmen residence halls. It is not an ideal solution, but it feels better for juniors or seniors, who are trying to finish their education here at Point Loma. Our hope this year, and next year actually, is that our freshmen class size is less.”

Yes, our campus is small and housing accommodations may not emulate the arrangements we hoped for; however, we should see the value of our reestablished, unique community in technicolor as we enter the post-COVID-19 epoch. While the frustration toward crowded housing has its basis, the influx of new students shines a positive light on PLNU’s community and its continuation in the foreseeable future.

If first-year class sizes decrease, then there will be less of a crunch for housing in future years. Gilbertson predicts that the true ‘housing crisis’ will not come for five or more years. At the moment, the university is navigating the construction of new dorms. Tripling rooms is the short term solution to keep students in more affordable housing. For students who are not content with their future or current housing situation, Dickerson encourages them to be proactive and reach out to ResLife themselves. 

“In most cases, we encourage students to give their placement and roommate assignments a chance before requesting a change; however, students can be added to a waitlist over the summer for a room change. Room changes are not guaranteed and are dependent on availability,” Dickerson said via email.

Dickerson also encourages students to read their emails and FAQ information well before asking questions that have already been answered. 

“The value and beauty of an undergrad education at Loma is that you are doing life with your peers and building important relationships for the rest of your life,” Gilbertson said. “It’s been so great to see a sense of community, fun and excitement come back to campus post-COVID-19. I think that we are all hungry for the things we missed during that season and we are thankful that students can have that experience here at PLNU.”