Benedictine college

Some collegiate campuses have more students enrolled than ever before, but where there is a need for them to bed down after a hard day of studying — or a night of partying — a place to put that bed might be hard to come by.

According to President Stephen Minnis of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, when the pandemic first arrived, warnings of an exodus from campuses circulated throughout the national community of higher education. In a world of social distancing, lockdowns, mask-wearing and other COVID-19 realities, the fear was that families would opt to bring their students home to weather the storm. Mere months later, Benedictine shattered a school record for enrollment, with the headcount surpassing 2,000 for the first time.

“Pleasant surprise” would be an understatement, before the reality dawned that the campus only has enough living space for about 75% of those enrolled. This has now inspired the construction of a new residence hall on the northwest fringe of the campus, which will add 122 beds upon completion. Further developments are envisioned.

“We have 2,000 students, 1,500 beds, that means we have 500 people living out in the community, which is awesome,” Minnis said. “Our kids are great for the community, and I think the community loves having them around.”

So no big deal, they just move off-campus and the problem is solved, right? Atchison’s Interim City Manager Justin Pregont explained how it’s not that simple.

“There’s a crunch because students can’t attend school if they don’t have someplace to live,” he said. “And while Benedictine is very committed to their residential campus, when they enroll more kids, more kids are off-campus. And so they have to find housing out here in the community.”

In recent years, the city has seen a persistent trend wherein — for example — someone who bought a $50,000 home has seen the value of that home nearly double. Over the time they’ve owned it, they were renting out space, to college students for example.

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Now the situation has changed. They are incentivized to sell, and the stock of available rooms in suitable condition has collapsed. What is left behind are, more often than not, blighted properties with structural deficiencies, broken fixtures and poorly maintained roofs, insulation and/or heating/air conditioning. For all renters, the Atchison government has struggled to try to reduce this problem for years. The growing demand for student housing just puts an onus on the problem.

“I’m sure there are some students in, I would certainly say, that are in housing that’s not suitable to be occupied,” Pregont said. “I hope that’s not, that they’re not any imminent danger or anything like that. But when you’re going to school, you don’t expect to be in some of the conditions that some of these students have to be in.”

To the extent that housing supply is an issue in other college towns, like Maryville, Missouri, the new reality of higher education greatly reduces it. Although more people — 7,800 — are enrolled at Northwest Missouri State University, a healthy chunk of that is all-online. As never before, decisions are made to obtain a college degree without ever living on-campus or off-campus in the surrounding community.

“Much of Northwest’s enrollment growth is the online market, which does not impact the on- or off-campus housing markets, leaving the university with ample housing space,” said Mark Hornickel, Northwest spokesman.

At any rate, Benedictine is difficult to compare to other colleges. To the extent there’s a need to have fewer kids living in Atchison and more living on campus at Benedictine, the college wholeheartedly agrees. In general, to study there, one has to live in the residence halls. There are exceptions, such as for those age 23 or older, or who are married. The idea is to build a culture of leadership, Minnis explained.

“That’s pretty unusual for most colleges around this area, or even around the country,” he said. “So they are required to live on campus every year, all four years unless we don’t have housing for them ... But we lose too many leaders that way, and we want our leaders to be on campus with us.”

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