A Playbook for Campus Housing During COVID-19: Considerations for housing and reimbursing students

Blog Post
Photo by Alek Kalinowski on Unsplash
July 23, 2020

In the middle of March, the United States was in crisis, facing a surge of coronavirus cases. Most residential colleges, fearing spread within their communities, shuttered their residence halls and told students to go home. We know that housing insecurity is a big problem for college students and this move, while important for public health, did not affect all students equally. For many students, they had no home or safe place to return. College is their home. It is a safe place to get their work done, to access food, and to utilize other essential services such as healthcare. At the same time, college residence halls can be uniquely problematic in a public health crisis given the tight quarters and shared spaces. As colleges plan for the fall, they need to create a playbook for their campus housing that protects the most vulnerable first and provides financial assurances to their students.

Abrupt Closures in the Spring

Facing down an enormous health and economic crisis, the abrupt closure of residence halls added a housing and food crisis to many students’ lives, while expecting them mere days later to appear online and continue their academic course load. It seems many institutions sent out surveys to their students to gauge who needed housing, in some instances only after telling everyone to leave, exacerbating an already stressful situation. And when students did hear back from their institutions, many were denied despite having good reasons for staying.

The abrupt closures, and their unintended consequences that led to housing and food insecurity, left colleges scrambling to meet the growing needs of students after the fact. One student we talked to who lived in a hard-hit area explained, “There were people banging on students’ doors telling them you have to get out. You have to leave in two to three days. You have to pack your stuff or it will be moved for you. And [for students who needed a place to live] there were talks about relocation to an area where there [were surging cases] and it just wasn’t safe. There was lack of clarity and decisions were made quickly, which was understandable, but other institutions around us did a better job.”

In the midst of the crisis, most schools were trying their hardest to keep students safe given the public health implications of living in shared spaces. It was a frightening and stressful time for everyone involved.

Prioritizing Vulnerable Students in the Fall

These closure decisions were understandable in the spring, as the nation dealt with a sudden and unprecedented crisis. It is not tenable for the fall, when the crisis is still playing out in full force and with many colleges and universities, despite the public health crisis continuing to rage, looking to welcome students back to residence halls. As plans have been emerging about residential living on campuses across the nation, our concerns run deep that not enough planning has been put into place to house and feed vulnerable students first, and let them remain on campus during inevitable shutdowns. Surveying students to find their need after the fact simply won’t cut it.

After conducting interviews with students, institutions, and reading various reopening plans, we have several recommendations for institutions:

For Colleges Predominantly Online for the Fall

The next academic year looks very different at each residential college and university in the nation. Some colleges and universities have announced that they will be almost entirely online. The California State University System was among the first of many universities to declare this, with very few in-person classes that are difficult to conduct online. Despite being predominantly online, they also have a policy to house vulnerable students--such as homeless, housing insecure, or former foster youth--on and off campus in emergencies, ensuring they have a safe space to learn, eat, and sleep. This emergency housing protocol has been in place since 2017, enabling CSU campuses to house students in crisis--policy the system can now rely on during the pandemic, even though most courses will be virtual.

All colleges and universities that are planning to be predominantly online, should have minimum emergency living opportunities for students who are housing insecure or homeless, foreign students unable to travel to their home country or unable to learn synchronously from their home country, students who live in unsafe conditions or domestic violence situations, and students who have no place to learn and very little connectivity.

For Colleges Adopting the Hybrid Approach

Other colleges and universities are attempting a hybrid living and learning approach, where some students from specific classes will be allowed on campus. Some examples we’ve heard are freshmen and juniors welcomed in the fall semester and sophomores and seniors coming for the spring semester. Classes in these situations will still be mostly online, but students will be able to take some advantage of residential living. At one very selective private nonprofit college, a student told us that freshmen will be welcomed in the fall and that the institution, space permitting, will allow vulnerable students to live on campus as well. According to her, “[My college sent a survey] on a Tuesday and the deadline to apply for emergency on campus housing was due that Friday, which is absurd. And then they said they were going to tell people on the following Monday, and I think people still haven’t heard back and most people I know have gotten denied.”

Welcoming a class of students back ahead of the most vulnerable students is the absolute wrong way to go about any planning for the fall. Because of social distancing and other public health requirements, capacity constraints are intense on residence halls. Absolute priority should be given to vulnerable students first.

For All Colleges Welcoming Any Residential Students This Fall

We all hope to avoid the pain of rapid closure that we saw this spring. But, unfortunately, the United States has been shattering coronavirus infection records every week as we approach move-in dates. Many colleges have put testing, tracing, and quarantine room strategies in place. But what is less clear is whether institutions know who is housing insecure among students arriving in the fall. A student’s housing insecurity needs to be known on the front-end and logged appropriately, and these students should be housed in residence halls that have been set aside to remain open if an institution has to make the decision to close, preventing them from having to relocate anywhere else on campus. Additionally, according to recent New America research on the best ways to communicate with students, messages asking students about their housing security status should be timely (not last minute), interactive (include link to sign up/instructions), and clearly and caringly communicate the housing options for vulnerable students.

Students who have housing insecurity should know before they move in that they won’t be forced to leave. College is their home, their safe place, and should remain so in times that are so unsafe they’ve forced a community to shelter in place and an institution to physically shutter.

Paying Back Students in the Event of Abrupt Residence Hall Closures

Regardless of students’ situations, the semester wasn’t over this spring when they were forced to vacate their residence hall. Residential students paid for a full semester’s worth of room and board and they didn’t get that, so they rightfully expected some money back. They were neither living in their residence hall room nor eating in dining halls for the remainder of the term and were entitled to some type of refund. A few colleges refused to offer refunds and were sued by students, but most colleges offered prorated refunds based on the time remaining in the semester.

For Colleges Welcoming Students This Fall

Now, colleges across the country plan to bring back students to campus in at least some way for the fall semester. As many states are seeing record coronavirus cases, schools might be faced with the decision to shutter their residence halls—if not their entire campus—once again. Recent reports indicate that some universities have instituted policies to avoid issuing refunds to students if they are forced to close due to the coronavirus. Schools almost immediately faced backlash, and for good reason. Students who are forced off campus deserve their money back. If someone in a normal residential lease was forced out of their residence for an emergency or if it is uninhabitable, it would likely be viewed as the landlord breaking the lease and they wouldn’t be expected to pay the remainder of their rent. (Some schools have since revised their policies on this issue.)

College students pay a hefty price tag for living expenses and are often leveraging their financial future with student loans to do so. They shouldn’t be forced to pay for something they aren’t using. Plus, many of them—particularly the most vulnerable students—need that money to cover housing costs in a new living situation, not to mention the food that would be otherwise covered by a meal plan on campus.

As colleges prepare to bring students back into residence halls, they cannot create unfair—and possibly illegal—housing policies that will leave students in the lurch in the scenario that residence halls are set to close. Institutions must create transparent and fair policies around refunds in the case that residence halls close due to the pandemic. Schools should provide refunds to students for both housing and meal plans, prorated based on the time remaining that students would otherwise have access to those facilities and services.

There are reasonable provisions that schools can include to protect both students and schools. For example, schools can clarify that if classes go online but residence halls remain open, students will not be able to terminate their housing or dining contracts. Some colleges have offered students a credit towards the next semester’s bill. This can be a good way to stabilize college budgets and can be a good retention incentive. However, schools need to carefully consider that students may need this money now. One possibility is to offer an opt-out so some students can get a refund if needed. This is likely needed anyway for graduating students and others who don’t plan to return.

Institutions of higher education are faced with difficult choices this fall. They want students on campus to help ensure they are engaged and are retained so they eventually get their degree. At the same time, they want to keep students, faculty, and staff all safe and healthy. Schools also face serious financial implications as they are purchasing personal protective equipment and sanitization supplies, and potentially will see decreased revenue from predicted drops in enrollment. Public colleges and universities will likely also see cuts in state appropriations as state economies are hurt by the pandemic.

On top of that, campuses that have fewer students in residence halls will have less revenue from room and board charges. And many campuses are locked into contracts with third-party providers for food services. Housing and meal plan refunds will only put an additional strain on school budgets.

For Congress as it Considers the Next Stimulus

This spring, schools were financially rescued by the more than $6 billion that Congress allocated in the CARES Act that went to institutions to help cover costs related to the coronavirus pandemic and the shift online. And that money played a major role in covering housing refunds. One survey found that offsetting student housing refunds was the number one priority of 81 percent of schools surveyed. That’s significant, especially since public two-year schools that likely aren’t residential campuses made up 18 percent of schools in the survey. Some colleges even received additional relief from the forgivable loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).

It is understandable that colleges are worried about costs. For colleges with already tight budgets, the pandemic is going to put them in a worse financial bind. Congress is currently considering another round of stimulus money. Congressional leaders and the White House have indicated support for education broadly, though it’s unclear what that funding might look like at the end. Policymakers should consider how they can support colleges financially in many ways, but particularly residential colleges if they are forced to close again.


As we face an uncertain academic year, it is incumbent upon colleges to prioritize housing for their most vulnerable students on campus and to provide clear policies about reimbursement for those who may need to leave their residence halls before the end of the semester. We know both of these goals can be difficult to accomplish given financial stress and the shifting public health crisis, but colleges have the moral obligation to support students who have no other viable housing options and to ensure students get what they pay for.

Edited 7/30/20 to replace instances of "dorm" with "residence hall" to acknowledge these unique living and learning environments.

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