Off-campus housing: going off the grid? Housing requirement poses concerns for landlords

Clarion, Pa.- When most students step onto a college campus for the first time, many are searching for a rite of

Eagle Park Apartments is one of the 68 off-campus rental properties listed on the Clarion University website.
Eagle Park Apartments is one of the 68 off-campus rental properties listed on the Clarion University website.

passage, and a taste of freedom.

Many state universities require incoming freshman and transfer students to reside on campus for their first two semesters. Several colleges uphold this requirement to try and ease students into the college life, to introduce them to on-campus organizations and events.

Until the fall of 2013, Clarion University required first-time-in students enrolled full time and transfer students with less than 24 credits earned at a previous institution to live on campus for their first two semesters of enrollment.

Exceptions such as students living with a parent or guardian within a 30-mile radius, married students, part-time students, single parents, students 21 years of age or older and honorably discharged military veterans are permitted to live off of campus.

Now, CU students who do not fall under one of the few expectations are required to live in on-campus housing for the first four semesters of enrollment.

For off-campus landlords, the two-year on-campus housing requirement has caused some concerns.

“Forcing students to stay on campus through their sophomore year, I think, is affecting everyone else in town who rents apartments,” said Keith Gourley, owner of College Park Apartments.

Gourley has owned College Park Apartments for 20 years, 15 of which he has been able to operate his apartments at full capacity. For almost five years straight, his apartments have operated at  80 percent capacity and 20 percent empty.

“We haven’t raised prices in the past five years. Ten years ago,” he concluded, “you could walk through town and not see a ‘For Rent’ sign anywhere. Now they are all over the place. It’s a declining population. It’s common sense that it’s going to hurt everyone.”

Enrollment at Clarion University main campus, Venango campus, and online facilities dropped 368 students this fall, standing at a total of 5,712 students. This number is five students less than the predicted student count and is part of what Clarion University has seen as a steady decline in enrollment.

New student enrollment between the three locations decreased by 32 students, with an undergraduate return rate of 73.8 percent. The undergraduate return rate has also decreased since its record high of 75.9 percent, but is close to the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education average.

“We expected a decrease in the first year. The second year we are expecting to maintain our occupancy,” said landlord Jay Kumar, after the two-year housing requirement was first announced. Kumar has owned and operated Eagle Park Apartments, a 221 rental unit, for 16 years. Although he has seen a 15 to 20 percent decrease in student rentals in the past year, he remains positive about the future of not only Eagle Park, but Clarion University.

“My main concern is supply and demand,” he said, referring to the first lesson he learned when he graduated with a business degree from Clarion University, 33 years ago.

“Declining enrollment along with half of the students having to stay on-campus has shortened the demand and increased supply. This decline in demand has affected most landlords in Clarion,” he added, “and if students are given a choice to attend another State University without the housing requirement, I believe this could affect enrollment. Students like to have choices.”

However, Kumar has been working hard, upgrading and maintain his facility to keep it safe, clean and affordable in part of their main goal to “attract and maintain students.”

Kumar maintains a positive attitude, hoping that he will see a change in on- and off-campus housing and enrollment, “I expect our occupancy to increase within the next two or three years to the point of being sold out as Eagle Park has been for 8 of the past 9 years.”

He concluded, “I believe the University is making great strides towards increasing enrollment. All the new construction and upgrading of their facilities is fantastic.  New curriculums and an emphasis on increasing enrollment has Clarion University looking very promising for the future. And that is positive for off-campus housing.”

Landlord and off-campus property owner Richard Miller shares the same beliefs, that two factors, the decrease in the school population and the new housing rule, has been affecting off-campus renting, but hopes for a better future. A 20-year off-campus renter, Miller also reported that his rentals have been running at full capacity until the last two years.

“There has been a decrease of interest in off-campus housing. I have lowered the price, advertised, I’d rather have one renter than have none at all,” he said.

Miller explains how like just like other landlords renting to students in the area, he is hurting. “It’s just like a business, you have to pay the mortgage. I am hoping that things will get better and that the student population will go back up at the school,” he added, “but I think when students become juniors they will opt to not stay on campus and have a house of their own, a place that’s cheaper.”

Although he believes that in building the new suites the University has overbuilt themselves, he still believes that they are nicer, better quality than the residency dorms. “Hopefully things turn around in the next few years. If it doesn’t, I’ll have to sell my properties. Nonetheless, I am pleased to have dealt with the students I have rented to, the upcoming generation of students are of a better caliber than what I’ve ever seen before.”

The University has long been a part of the Clarion community, its students and faculty developing a symbiotic relationship with local businesses and town residences. Brian Acey, owner of Acey Rentals, recognizes the large part that the university plays in concerning the life of the town. “Once enrollement increases and retention rates increase, and there are more students living here, the housing markets will go back to normal,” said Acey, who has owned his properties for over 25 years.

He reflects on the past couple years and realizes just how much Clarion University is a base industry for the local community.

“Look at Main Street now, look at the 7/11 gas station that’s now gone. The students are a strong part of Clarion Borough,” he added, “off-campus landlords are trying to provide students with an affordable college experience too. Bottom line is there aren’t enough students here. I hope what the university is planning in regard to increasing enrollment becomes fact.”

Clarion University president, Dr. Karen Whitney, believes that the university will be able to recruit more students to CU than in the past because of the new student housing, and as there is an increase in overall enrollment, she hopes that more students will choose to live in off-campus housing.

“After studying the academic success of students who live in student housing and then who move out there was a pattern of people not doing as well academically,” said Whitney, who believes that the 2-year student housing policy will lead to students who will be much stronger academically, better prepare to be successful when they do move off campus.

She added, “National research clearly indicates that student’s living in student housing tend to make higher grades and graduate at a higher rate than students who do not live in college student housing. We are most interested in each student succeeding and graduating from Clarion.”

In regard to the concerns of off-campus rentals and dropping enrollment, Whitney remains positive that the new housing opening on Main St. will give students many options as to where to live and types of living arrangements and experiences.

“Clarion University is working hard to rebuild and grow our enrollment through recruiting more students and helping every current student graduate,” she concluded, “increasing student recruitment and retention will increase the number of upper class and graduate students who I hope will choose to live in our nearby off campus housing.”

Only time will tell if the new on-campus housing policy will indeed help with retention rates, or if the new student housing will encourage students to seek enrollment at Clarion University. One thing remains certain, the future and actions of the university will and do ripple down to the community, depending upon each other for growth and prosperity. Acey  confirms, “Whenever the university flexes their muscle, we are going to feel it.”

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