Low enrollment of residential students has left entire floors empty in Upton Hastings, Robie Andrews and Dickey-Wood halls. According to Assistant Director of Public Affairs Judy O’malley, the university has not had to close entire floors or residence halls since the early 1990s.
According to Cristi Carson, director of institutional research and assessment at USM, residential enrollment has been in decline in recent years. Carson said the university does not yet have the official census numbers for the fall semester, but as of the end of the first week of classes, there were just over 1,000 students living on campus, falling short of a fall occupancy goal of 1,275.
With a capacity for 1,543 residential students, nearly one third of the beds in Gorham are empty this semester.
According to Director of Public Affairs Bob Caswell, the recession has played a part in what he called a downward trend in residential enrollment. “Anecdotal evidence suggests students are living off campus more because of financial restraints,” he said.
Sophomore Sam Ellis said money affected his decision to move off-campus. Ellis said he initially planned on living in an apartment in Upperclass Hall, which would have cost him over $1,000 a month for just eight months. An apartment in Gorham with friends is costing Ellis just $325 a month, with a year-long lease. But Ellis also said he moved off campus for social reasons.”I didn’t really like dorm life,” he said. “Getting off campus is a lot more enjoyable.”
Additionally Ellis said he is saving money by buying his own food instead of being on the meal plan he would have had on campus. “I guess I’ll just have to learn how to cook,” he said.
The cost of living, per semester, in a residential hall in Gorham ranges from $2,489 to $4,075. The cheapest option — a double bedroom in Robie Andrews Hall — adds up to about $829 a month, which is well above what one could expect to pay for a shared apartment in Gorham or Portland.
The most expensive option, an apartment in Upperclass Hall with 4 single bedrooms comes to an approximate monthly total of $1,358. A quick search of apartment rental listings on Craigslist turned up nothing nearly as expensive, the closest being a luxury 3-bedroom townhouse that, split three ways, would come to $1,000 a month. A sample of 25 two bedroom apartment rentals in the Portland yielded a rough average of $1,064 per apartment, or $532 per person per month.
Director of Residential Life Denise Nelson said that while lower residential enrollment generally means lower enrollment overall and reduced tuition revenue, a decrease in residential fees does not represent a sharp loss in revenue for USM as a whole. “Residential life has to be self-supporting, so the money that comes from residential students is applied back to residential students,” she said. “The university is going to be concerned by lower numbers anywhere, whether it’s residential students, commuter students or non-traditional students. But the money that students pay to stay in the residential halls doesn’t subsidize their tuition.”
Caswell said the university is working on how to address the shortage of residential students in two ways: In the short term, officials are working on strategies to minimize the impact of having multiple floors in multiple residence halls empty. In the long term, Caswell said USM will look at how to retain current residential students and attract more in the future. “There are no plans to permanently close or mothball entire residence halls,” he said. “The more important question is, what are we going to do to address this issue?”
According to Caswell, USM is considering employing targeted surveys to find out what would attract new students to live on campus, and expanding learning communities — such as the Russell Scholar program — in the dorms.