Are You Ready for Students to Return?

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Stephen Hassell

By Stephen Hassell

BOSTON–The COVID-19 pandemic has had a major impact on both the finances and operations of higher education institutions worldwide. But as 2021 begins, it looks like the situation has begun to change for the better.

With newly available vaccines and vaccination rollouts nationwide, this pandemic will one day soon be over, and for higher education institutions in particular, students will return to campuses. But with all this good news, each institution will have to ask themselves an important question before they can open their doors again: Are they ready to safely welcome students back in the post-COVID-19 era, with new rules, regulations, and infrastructure?

For those institutions that made the difficult decision to not bring their students back to campus, it has been estimated that for every 100 students, there was a $1 million loss in revenue from room and board, the most profitable portion of the college invoice.

For those institutions that did decide to return students to campus, or adopted a hybrid model of operations, the days of placing two or three student beds per room are already over. To provide beds that meet social-distancing or quarantine safety standards, schools situated in urban areas have created temporary single bedrooms by renting rooms in nearby empty hotels. But this is not a permanent solution. As vaccinations continue, the hospitality industry will experience increased demand, making these rented beds no longer available. On-campus capacity will be inadequate to house all students in what would be the new normal.

Moreover, students that did take virtual classes will want to return to campus. Since new student resident halls take between two and three years from planning to occupancy, the best time for institutions to begin evaluating their alternatives is now.

University housing administrators must urgently act for the future safety of students and the peace of mind of the people who pay their tuition, be it the students themselves or their families. But this also raises a question that no one likes to ask: How will institutions pay for these urgently needed changes? Well-endowed institutions have the financial footing to either pay for or loan against a new residence hall, or to raise needed amount of funds to support the new infrastructure. But how will schools with less secure financial footing afford it?

Those with lesser endowments, which may have been further diminished by the vast revenue losses experienced in 2020, may decide to seek a partner, such as a public-private partnership (P3) owner of a new student housing development. When taking this alternative, a P3 contract adviser is recommended unless the institution has previous experience with this development vehicle.

Issues to sort through in the request for proposal (RFP) and negotiations involve operations management, revenue sharing, term of the P3 ownership, maintenance, guaranteed occupancy rates, financing, loan amortization, cost to students, food service, and other amenities.

Boston and New York City-based architecture and design firm SGA is currently in design with a number of higher education clients who have the foresight and sense of urgency to realize this next step to living safely in the post-COVID-19 era, and has authored a paper on COVID-19 safe design considerations for student resident halls.

If you’re planning your next campus project, please contact us and we will guide you every step of the way—from planning to design and delivery.

(Stephen Hassell is Vice President of Business Development at SGA. He received a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from Northeastern University and a Master of Business Administration from Babson College in Wellesley, MA. He is a frequent guest lecturer at both institutions, as well as at Wentworth Institute of Technology and the University of New Hampshire. He can be reached at shassell@sga-arch.com .)