The Pandemic Did Not Cause UCSD’s Housing Crisis

OpinionStaff Op-Ed

Eli Lawler / The Triton

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UCSD will now offer guaranteed housing only to incoming first-year and transfer students, which is a drastic shift from the pre-pandemic two-year housing guarantees. Not only is this change a reduction from previous guarantees, it also stands in stark contrast to a goal that UCSD established in 2019 when Chancellor Pradeep Khosla claimed “[w]e want to become a residential campus with a four-year housing guarantee for every undergrad at below-market prices.” Though this would indeed be an ideal housing situation, it appears increasingly unlikely this will become a reality on campus.

While the last year of fully remote learning disrupted normal operations for our entire campus community, Fall 2021 promises some semblance of normalcy; classes will allegedly be held in-person, athletic and social gatherings will return with reduced social distancing, and “campus residence halls will be near 100 percent occupancy.” Yet for those rising second year students who didn’t live on-campus last year due to the pandemic, their chance at residential college life may already be out of reach. By chronically admitting more students than campus facilities can sustain, UCSD is putting tuition funds before students’ college experience. Rather than admitting more students every year, stretching its housing capacities to the limit and making new housing selection systems necessary, UCSD should prioritize the experiences of its current student body by balancing the number of admitted students with campus facilities.

Like the rest of the UC system and other universities, UCSD has had to cope with revenue losses and budget cuts caused by the pandemic; the UC system has lost almost $2 billion in revenue since May 2020. Last April, 82% of undergraduates at UCSD living on campus terminated their housing contracts, further reducing the university’s profit from students’ housing. Repopulating campus housing is thus in the university’s financial interests. With COVID-19 still in the community, the decision not to house students in triple rooms is the safer one to make; however, this reduction from triples to double and single rooms simply exacerbates a pre-existing housing trend created by rising enrollment numbers at UCSD. 

In 2019, before the pandemic, UCSD admitted its highest-ever number of applicants at 42,813; in 2020, amid the pandemic, UCSD again broke its record set by the previous year, admitting 50,115 students for Fall of that year. Housing, though, has been an issue that worsens with each record-breaking year of admits. UCSD has since exceeded an enrollment capacity that was set as a goal to reach during the year 2035, not 2021. Enrollment has vastly outstripped the campus’s capacity for housing, as well as other amenities such as parking. New construction at UCSD has added nearly 5,000 beds to the 17,000 previous on-campus housing beds, but steadily rising annual enrollment numbers—coupled now with the reduction to singles and doubles—worsens the housing situation.

In 2014, housing guarantees for freshmen were reduced from four years for some classes and three years for others, eventually moving down to the two-year guarantee that persisted until this year. This change was caused by enrollment increases, and we are seeing a similar situation unfolding now. Recent funding negotiations between the UC system and the state of California which removed a previous ban on increased enrollment from students beyond California could be in part why the university has turned to yearly increases in enrollment to bolster their financial situation.

The UCSD campus will now be able to house even fewer students, hence the creation of a new priority system to determine which students can secure a housing contract, something that will be unlikely for many students until 2023 at least. To make matters worse, the scarcity of on-campus housing is adding to the financial burden that students living on campus face. Since single and double rooms are more expensive compared to triples (costing $1,927 more for a single and $944 more for a double by 2019-20 full payment rates), students who wish to live on campus must automatically opt for the more expensive option. 

Universities that have less populated campuses, such as UC Santa Cruz, are trying to maintain on-campus housing for two years despite the pandemic. The second tier of UC Santa Cruz’s priority system for Fall 2021, for example, is the category of students who entered as freshmen last year and who are in the EOP program, while UCSD’s second tier constitutes those who are new freshmen and transfers or second years who had lived on campus last year. The surges in enrollment that UCSD experiences, therefore, is gradually reducing the opportunities that students have for on-campus aspects of the college experience.

While it may seem that a shortage of on-campus housing and other campus amenities is a chronic problem at UCSD, it wasn’t always this way. My parents are both UCSD alumni; in the 1990s, when they attended this school, the total student population was around 16,000. At that time, UCSD had three libraries—Geisel Library, the Biomedical Library, and Galbraith Hall—for its students to study at; now, though the student population has more than doubled, we have one less library than before. This correlates with housing; even with the pandemic aside, the new housing priority system is the result of a recent trend at UCSD relying on tuition from enrollment increases for funding.

It is true that living on campus isn’t always the great college experience it is depicted as. As someone who lived on campus for five quarters, living in a triple could be difficult at times, and my apartment had our usual roommate conflicts over cleaning and such. But when I think back to my experiences at UCSD, it’s not the remote learning that stands out. It’s the first almost-two-years of living on campus—of walking down from my Warren College apartment in the misty La Jolla morning to attend a class; of crossing Voigt Lane late at night after a club meeting, stepping into the orange residential lights and feeling like I’d come back to a second home; of going to a dining hall for dinner with roommates and friends and not having to think about getting on the shuttle to go back to my car. Living on campus was the sense of belonging fully to my college, and I imagine many others feel similarly. Two-year housing guarantees should be prioritized over campus growth, over increasing enrollment numbers, over multiplying colleges, because it’s an essential part of an experience you will remember all your life.

Montanna Harling is a staff writer for The Triton.