NIU to require on-campus living for 2 years

By Robert Baird

William Heinisch, DeKalb Area Rental Association (DARA) president, expects NIU’s 2015 second-year residential requirement to cause the vacancy of 400 to 500 rental units in DeKalb.

The residential housing rule will require second-year students to live in the NIU residence halls like first-year students, beginning with the freshman class of 2015.

This change will require about 800 additional sophomore students to live on campus, Heinisch said. He said local landlords are concerned about the impact it will have on rental property values.

Paul Palian, NIU director of media and public relations, said in an email that the residential requirement is being implemented in an effort to diminish the relatively high number of sophomores who leave in good standing.

“The No. 1 issue of DeKalb is its high vacancy rate,” Heinisch said. “The current [vacancy rate] is 8 to 10 percent, which is already high. This will probably push it to 12 to 15 percent. It’s not good for the city, homeowners, landlords or NIU.”

Heinisch said the university should have considered a step-by-step approach instead. He said the value of rental units will decrease in cost due to the residential requirement reducing the amount of tenants.

“There’s going to be an increase in stress properties,” Heinisch said. “Properties tend to get boarded up, and there’s typically an increase in crime as well. I hope DeKalb, DARA, and NIU can work together to benefit all parties involved in the future.”

Palian said the sophomore retention rates of Illinois and MAC schools with second-year residential requirements are typically higher than those without. NIU’s retention in fall 2010 was 71 percent, Palian said. Compared to other MAC schools the same year with the same housing requirement, NIU’s retention rate is 6 to 18 percent less, Palian said. Illinois State University’s retention in 2010 was 85 percent, with a second-year requirement implemented. Western Illinois University and Southern Illlinois University have second-year residential requirements, and had similar retention rates as NIU in 2010, Palian said.

“There’s all kinds of research to show that second-year students stay more engaged and connected to the university,” said Michael Stang, Housing and Dining executive director. “It shows students are more likely to continue enrollment. We’re certainly doing everything we can to make sure students stay engaged as possible. So that’s really the primary purpose for doing this, to make sure students don’t get disconnected between their freshman and junior year.”

At this point, Stang said the cutoff for the sophomore housing requirement will be two years post-high school.

Palian said the maximum capacity of the residence hall system will be 6,400 beds for fall 2013.

“We anticipated that we’ll have plenty of space for all the students who would like to, or who would be required to, live on campus,” Stang said. “It’s a little bit of a change in philosophy. Our hope is to allow students to be more connected with the university, and be closer to tutoring services, computer labs, and those kinds of things, and increase the number of students who stick around their third and fourth year.”

Stang said NIU might have to add more housing and dining staff. In the meantime, Housing and Dining is moving staff around campus.

“If we get to the point where every space on campus is full, then we would have to hire at the very least some community advisers, because we don’t have enough [staff] to cover all the floors that we need to have,” Stang said. “If we go that route, we may look at a different staffing model in terms of what freshman and sophomore students might need for staff. We’re just now really getting into some of the planning processes for what we will need to have these additional students living on campus with us.”

Stang said NIU already houses just under 1,000 returning students already. He said Housing and Dining is unsure if it will make a profit from housing more students. He said the prices for 2015 housing are still being determined.

“There may be a scenario where, with additional students on campus, we could actually reduce or maintain the rates,” Stang said. “Housing and dining is what’s called an auxiliary or a standalone operation. So we generate our own revenue and use it to operate the residence halls.”

Stang said Housing and Dining does not receive state funding as its funds come from housing fees.

“Tuition dollars aren’t going toward our funding,” Stang said. “It’s designed to be a standalone system. So we’d look at what additional expenses there might be in terms of utility usage and additional staff and those kinds of things.”

Stang said many of the housing costs are fixed and spread among students.

“So the per-student cost would actually go down with more students,” Stang said. “So once we get the rest of the financial analysis completed, we’ll have a better understanding of that.”

Stang said Housing and Dining isn’t trying to generate additional profit because it doesn’t make a profit.

“We charge enough to cover our expenses, to pay the debt service, and to make a contribution to our reserves that we use to do future renovations and those kinds of things,” Stang said. “So there’s no profit, per se.”

Stang said by next fall, Stevenson, Grant North, New Hall, Douglas, Neptune and Gilbert will be available for housing students. He said the amount of buildings used will depend on the number of on-campus students. The intention of closing buildings is to maintain a full community among the residence halls, which is why two wings of Lincoln Hall were not used this year, he said.

“So when you look at all of [the housing options], we’ve got more than enough space to accommodate everyone in all those facilities,” Stang said. “I want to emphasize the fact that over half of returning second-year students are already living on campus. I think people perceive this as a significant change, and for our community it probably is. But we’ve got plenty of students with us, not only their first and second years, but their third and fourth, as well.”