Pandemic leads to increase in canceled residence hall contracts

With concerns surrounding the pandemic and fewer classes being offered in-person than in a typical semester, many students have cancelled their residence hall housing contracts across all three major universities in the state of Iowa this academic year.


Wyatt Dlouhy

Catlett Residence Hall is seen on Wednesday, March 6, 2019.

Caitlin Crome, News Reporter

More students canceled their residence hall housing contracts this fall as COVID-19 cases rose among students and more classes transitioned online.

According to the report from University of Iowa Director of Housing Administration Virginia Ibrahim-Olin on Sept. 4 — the 10th day of class for the fall semester — there were 5,218 students living in residence halls.

From Aug. 1 to Dec. 10, 2020, 912 students canceled their housing contracts — around 17 percent.

Of those contracts, 674 were canceled after Aug. 24, Ibrahim-Olin said.

“For comparison, between August 1 and December 10, 2019, we canceled 217 housing contracts, 144 of which were canceled after August 24,” Ibrahim-Olin said.

This is around a 14 percent increase in contract cancellations for the 2020 academic year from previous years. Ibrahim-Olin said it’s not yet clear what kind of impact vacancies would have on financials of University Housing and Dining, which is a self-sustaining campus unit.

Additionally, from Dec. 10 to Jan. 23, 560 students canceled their housing contracts for a variety of reasons. Of this number, 62.5 percent of students said they canceled their yearlong contract for the spring semester because of online course work and about a quarter said they were transferring/withdrawing from the university.

About 12.9 percent of cancellations were because of other reasons, according to data provided by Ibrahim-Olin.

Compared to the 2019-20 academic year, none of that year’s cancellations were because of online course work, and about 67.3 percent were because of transfer/withdrawal. The other 32.7 percent were for reasons such as study abroad, contract buyout, committee release, internships, and military.

The capacity in residence halls this academic year is also lower than in previous years.

“Occupancy in the residence halls varies from year to year based on enrollment,” Ibrahim-Olin said. “Students have taken longer to return to campus and our spring occupancy is still being finalized.”

In fall 2020, residence hall occupancy was 5,218 — 78.3 percent of planned capacity, compared to the fall 2019 residence hall occupancy of 6,333, which was 93.4 percent of planned capacity, according to data from Ibrahim-Olin.

The 2020 occupancy numbers are also around 1,000 students less than the previous five years.

The University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University have also seen a drop in occupancy numbers.

“Many factors contribute to on-campus occupancy each year,” Iowa State Communications Manager Brittney Rutherford said. “The dynamics of COVID-19 are part of the 2020 fall factors.”

Fall 2019 occupancy in Iowa State residence halls was 10,457 students and dropped to 8,658 students in the fall 2020.

UNI also saw a drop in residence hall occupancy from 3,197 students to 2,953 between the fall 2019 and fall 2020 academic semesters. UNI Public Relations Manager Steve Schmadeke reported 253 canceled housing contracts for the 2020-21 academic year.

First-year UI student Maya Johnson was among those who decided to cancel their housing contracts for the spring semester.

“All of my classes are online this semester, so I decided that it would be better for me to stay home this semester so I can save some money,” she said. “I will be able to come back to campus in the fall.”

Johnson said she enjoyed living on campus during the fall semester and had a great time living with her roommate.

“I had a few classes in-person last semester too so I had a good experience with in-person learning,” she said.

She said the university was accommodating and helpful when she was figuring out how to cancel her contract, and that there was not much else they could have done to make her experience better than what it already was.

“I just decided to do what would be best for me this semester and I am excited to be back on campus later this [fall],” Johnson said.