GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – At least they don't have a lot of elevators.
As administrators at Grand Valley State University ponder how they are going to safely house thousands of students on their campus just a little west of Grand Rapids, Michigan, they are finding a few silver linings – like more staircases than elevators.
With fairly new housing stock, the campus features a number of squat buildings, with little need for elevators – one of several pinch points housing officials at universities and colleges in most of the country are thinking about as they plan for a potential fall reopening.
Multiple public universities and at least a few private colleges in Michigan have already said they will be open for students this fall, which provides a good example of the challenges their peers in other states are facing.
Although much of the public's attention is focused on how instruction will be delivered – in-person classes, online-only or some hybrid form – universities are also having to think about how they'll keep students safe when they are away from the classroom. That's means focusing on residence halls, where students spend hour after hour jammed together in tight living conditions.
Michigan's public universities are autonomous entities not bound by all state laws, but Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said they should "rely on federal and state implement guidance on best practices to keep students, faculty and staff safe."
There are also massive financial implications.
Housing units at Michigan's public universities send millions of dollars to the schools' general funds. Housing funds across Michigan also carry significant debt loads – money borrowed to renovate or build new residence halls. While most universities say they have enough in reserves to cover those debt payments, an extended run of being closed or fewer students living on campus could affect the housing fund's ability to pay debts. That debt was guaranteed by the general fund of the university, which would have to step in to pay.
"If these operations are impaired that could have a negative impact, not only for housing, but for the whole university," said James Maladore, executive vice president for administration and business affairs at Saginaw Valley State in University Center, Michigan.
These concerns come as universities are already struggling with enrollment losses and other financial difficulties. Western Michigan University has said it is preparing to cut 20% of general fund spending and has already lost $45 million and laid off 240 employees this year because of the pandemic.
A visit to Grand Valley’s campus housing reveals the scope of the problem. The spaces aren’t designed with social distancing in mind. Single rooms are rare while common bathrooms are not. In the newest residence hall, the bathroom is down the hallway, with lots of people likely to touch lots of surfaces all day, every day.
Common areas for studying or watching TV invite students to congregate. A photo on the front of a Grand Valley housing brochure shows about a dozen students sitting elbow to elbow, studying and talking in one of those large common areas.
Don't expect to see that happening much this coming year, at least not at first.
Officials say the good thing about those spaces is that the furniture is movable, allowing students to drag pieces around so they aren't close to each other. However, the spaces are made for small group work, something that's hard to do when everyone is 6 feet apart.
Jennifer Cramer's daughter is headed to Michigan State University this fall as a freshman and wants to live on campus. Cramer, 47, of Westland, isn't so sure.
"I just worry about everyone being so close around each other," she said. "What happens when they go home for the weekend and come back? Who knows what they will have been exposed to. Because it's possible to have (COVID-19) and not know it, they could pass it on without knowing. I don't know if she'll be safe living there. Maybe she should just go somewhere closer and live at home, at least for a year."
How will it work?
Officials at Michigan's colleges and universities are trying to develop plans to address Cramer's concerns.
Step 1 – don't make the residence halls as dense.
At Grand Valley, that means looking at more single-person rooms than normal, officials said.
At Oakland University, that may mean shutting about 200 beds in halls that have traditional rooms, with bathrooms down the hall.
At Eastern Michigan University, that may mean reopening a closed residence hall to allow students to spread out.
Step 2 – clean. Then clean some more. Then bring in more cleaners. Then repeat over and over again.
At Grand Valley, that means more wiping down door handles and counters, washers and dryers, sinks and showers. Oakland is also beefing up the cleaning.
"Housing has its own cleaning team so we're not sharing custodial services with other parts of the university," said Glenn McIntosh, senior vice president for student affairs at Oakland. That will allow them to up the cleaning frequency.
Step 3 – madate masks.
Oakland is requiring all students to wear masks in social situations, McIntosh said. Saginaw Valley and Eastern Michigan both say they anticipate having everyone on campus wearing masks.
The goal? Keeping students safe.
"We want to provide that unique college experience students want," McIntosh said. "A lot of that is social events. We're not going to be socially distant. We're going to have physical distancing to keep students safe."
Convincing students – and parents – that is possible is key to the financial stability of the university.
Saginaw Valley knows its students want to be back on campus, its president says.
"They are not only telling us that; they are showing us,” Donald Bachand said in a statement announcing the reinstatement of campus housing and face-to-face instruction. “Despite all the challenges students and families are facing, we continue to receive housing deposits at the same pace as last year."
Those deposits are $200. It costs a first-year freshman living on campus as much as $11,378 for room and board for the coming year, according to rates published on the college's website.
All that adds up to about $14.7 million a year in housing revenue, according to budget figures for this current school year. That number did not take into account money lost from COVID-19 closures.
Not having students in dorms at normal occupancy rates will hurt the revenue coming in, which can hurt the university's general fund and bottom line. The risk is worse for schools that have a major part of their housing budget allocated to paying off debt.
On average, Michigan's public universities have about 25% of the housing budget scheduled for debt payments.
There are reasons for the high debt. Dorms need upkeep and updating. Market competition means colleges compete over students and their dollars. Having nice places to live is one way schools attract more students to campus, bringing tuition dollars with them.
That all costs money, and getting that money mostly means borrowing, said Kevin McClure, associate professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Leadership at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
"One of the reasons debt is going up is states aren't paying (for residence halls to be built or updated)," he said. "It's a much harder sell to get the legislature to approve funds for a residence hall than for an academic building."
And that's why the health of the universities, especially Michigan's regional universities, is so dependent on students showing back up in the fall.
"Enrollment numbers have big implications," McClure said, "not just for the general funds, but for those auxiliary (housing) units."
Follow David Jesse on Twitter: @reporterdavidj