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Reporter Debrief: UVM, Middlebury Students Scramble For Housing As Schools See Soaring Enrollment

Rental Sign on white cardboard with red lettering, in a neighborhood that looks like it could be in Burlington's Hill District.
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High enrollment at University of Vermont and Middlebury College has students searching for fall housing in an extremely tight housing market.

The housing crunch, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, is affecting renters across the country. And it's hitting college students in Vermont especially hard, heading into the fall semester.

Both the University of Vermont and Middlebury College anticipate record (or unusually high) enrollment this fall, leaving students scrambling for for a place to live in an increasingly tight housing market.

VPR’s Mitch Wertlieb spoke with Lana Cohen, a VTDigger reporter covering Chittenden County, who chronicles the challenges students face in seeking housing for the fall term in her story "Historic Enrollment Leaves UVM And Middlebury College Strapped For Housing". Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mitch Wertlieb: Let’s start with the University of Vermont. What kind of enrollment is the school anticipating this fall?

Lana Cohen: UVM is actually expecting record high enrollment this fall. They didn't provide exact numbers for how many students they anticipate will step on campus. But they did say that they expect a higher enrollment than they had in 2019. And total enrollment in 2019 was 13,548 students.

Are they ready for it?

Not quite. One main issue that UVM is having right now is that they just don't have enough housing to put everybody [who wants it] in on-campus housing right now. They have around 240 students on an on-campus housing waitlist, according to Joel Seligman, a communications officer for UVM.

In the story that you did for VTDigger, you profiled one UVM senior, Austin Morse, and spoke with Austin about how this campus housing crunch has affected him. What did he tell you about what he's facing this fall, personally?

Well, the housing crunch has really significantly impacted Austin, but even more than the housing crunch itself, what hurt Austin was the final-hour notice that he got from UVM.

Austin took off a large chunk of last year to work full time, and save money to pay for his final year of college. But now that he has to live off-campus, he's looking at almost double what he anticipated.

What are officials at UVM saying to students like Austin?

UVM is just saying these students who are not freshmen or sophomores, or transfer students under 20, knew that they were not guaranteed housing.

But Austin, for example, claimed that he had communicated with the housing department at UVM multiple times last spring to double and triple check that he was going to be provided housing on campus. And so, getting this notice from UVM just a few weeks ago was very frustrating to him. He said that it was basically like getting this letter from UVM that just said, “We have no housing for you, and good luck.”

Is UVM doing anything to alleviate this problem, Lana? Because students here, otherwise it would seem they're at the mercy of this tight rental market in places like Burlington, Winooski and other places in Chittenden County.

No, they don't really seem to be doing anything to help students at this moment.

I asked Joel Seligman if they were going to build any new housing, considering the large amount of students. He just pointed back to a new dorm complex that they built back in 2017. And the school does not subsidize any sort of off-campus housing.

Let's turn to Middlebury College. You and your colleague Sofia McDermott-Hughes report that Middlebury is seeing its own enrollment swell this coming term. What's happening there?

Middlebury College has between 250 and 300 students over what they want to have there. And Middlebury is a very different situation than UVM. There are much fewer housing options off campus.

So, while UVM students are being pushed into the general rental market, something different is happening at Middlebury to try to handle this crisis. One of those things is to turn the administrative buildings into housing. The other is to open up their Bread Loaf campus to students — mostly juniors.

The Bread Loaf campus is 10 miles away [in Ripton], but a 20-minute drive on a pretty windy road, with very little [cell phone] service, that often ices over in the winter.

That doesn't sound ideal, and there may be students as well who don't even have private transportation to get them through those winding roads, and it sounds pretty tough in winter. It does sound, though, like the difference you point out between Middlebury and UVM is that Middlebury is at least making more room for this overflow of students.

The problem seems to be: it's not located on campus. What are they going to do about that potential problem with the travel?

The school will be providing shuttles to and from the Bread Loaf campus, but Middlebury College did not say how many shuttles they'll be providing, how often those shuttles will be running, or how late or how early those shuttles will take tudents to and from the campuses.

And I understand, too, that Middlebury is turning to some rental hotel rooms. What’s going on there?

Yes, Middlebury College has rented out some 10 hotel rooms at the Middlebury Marriott.

Is there anything that Middlebury is offering these students who have to live at that Bread Loaf campus? For example, any kind incentive so that they're compensated in some way?

Yeah, there are a few incentives that Middlebury College is offering. That includes: half off room and board, priority housing next year, and free outdoor training and guided expeditions.

The students that are coming back for the fall are dealing with so much. There's the stress of COVID, there are these difficult living situations. Are students and administrators ready for this?

In terms of COVID, there is a lot up in the air. And I think that, like we've been doing for the past year-and-a-half, UVM faculty, students and administration will probably all have to be prepared to roll with the punches.

In terms of housing, it seems like they're not ready. Because if they were ready, then they would have housing for everybody that wanted it on campus.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet Morning Edition host Mitch Wertlieb @mwertlieb

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