Historically, black colleges and universities have been embroiled in a student housing crisis for decades. Now some are getting creative in tackling the problem.
Just in time for the fall 2023 semester, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, will transform dozens of shipping containers into dormitories, forming a small residential community that will house 98 students, the university’s executive vice president told NBC News, Jens Frederiksen. The low-cost, easy-to-build dormitories will have blue and gold exteriors, the colors of the university, with private bathrooms, kitchenettes and showers inside. The project will cost about $4 million, Frederiksen said.
“I think this is a brilliant and innovative solution and it works for us,” said Frederiksen. Fisk is believed to be the second US higher education institution to use shipping containers for student housing. after college of idaho implemented dormitory-style containers in 2020. Although shipping containers have been used for everything from accommodation a urban agriculture In the US, colleges and universities have recently turned to the solution to meet the needs of the student population.
“Enrollment is growing very fast and the shipping containers provide some sustainable flexibility. We have four current residence halls, but they are old dormitories. So I think containers will serve as a sustainable solution for the foreseeable future,» said Frederiksen.
The HBCU housing crisis is long-standing and well-documented: there is not enough housing available to accommodate growing HBCU enrollment, students endure poor living conditions on some campuses, and off-campus housing is largely inaccessible .
Fisk is one of several HBCUs working to provide housing for a growing number of students, as HBCUs are seeing a modest increase in enrollment after years of decline. Applications at HBCUs have skyrocketed in recent years, according to a Inside Higher Ed report. And in fall 2021, Morehouse College in Atlanta experienced a 70% increase in new students compared to fall 2020, and residential student applications increased by 17% between 2020 and 2021. according to the school website. Even smaller schools like Cheyney University in Pennsylvania, which lost 38% of its student body during the 2017-2018 school year, saw a 50% increase in enrollment from 2018 to 2022, according to the school website. As for Fisk, the small liberal arts college saw its total enrollment grow from 630 to 1,050 in just under five years, Frederiksen said.
This is welcome news after HBCUs posted their lowest enrollment in nearly 20 years during the 2018-2019 school year. But it’s also a problem for schools that are historically underfunded as they have struggled to accommodate new students.
HBCUs were founded to give black students the opportunity for higher education, and in turn, upward mobility, when most colleges were segregated. But decades of underfunding, exacerbated by national economic downturns, have set the stage for the current housing crisis, experts say. For example, it is reported that Tennessee State University put some students up in hotels before the fall semester of 2022 and invited students to take online classes at a free or discounted rate while officials worked to address housing issues.
In 2021, Howard University’s decades of housing problems came to a boil when college students began occupying a student center to protest poor living conditions in residential halls. Students complained of rodents, flooding and other irregular conditions, and a university official said mold was identified in at least 38 dormitories. A group of students staged a sit-in at the Blackburn University Center, known as the «Seizing of Blackburn,» for weeks in the fall of 2021 until the students reached a confidential agreement with Washington, DC, university administrators.
In September 2022, Howard University officials announced the development of a new residential and commercial building near the campus, with up to 500 residential units inside.
Of nearly 5,000 students surveyed at HBCU in 2020, 55% said they had trouble maintaining safe, affordable and consistent housing, and 20% said they became homeless in the past year, according to a report 2022 from The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University and the Center for the Study of HBCU at Virginia Union University. Almost 50% reported having limited access to food during the month prior to conducting the survey.
“The forces driving these trends of housing insecurity, food insecurity and other basic needs insecurities in HBCUs are many,” said Terrell Strayhorn, director of the Center for the Study of HBCUs. “One is the fact that what happens in society affects colleges and universities. Colleges and universities are microcosms of the great society.
At Fisk, university leaders sought student input for the shipping container project, and it was immediately popular with the student body, most of whom live on campus.
“We went to the student body, we held town halls, we did some surveys, and the response was incredible. Everyone wanted to live in these shipping containers,” Frederiksen said.
President Joe Biden campaigned on promises to fund HBCU. In its first year, the Biden administration invested $5.8 billion in HBCUs, including through pandemic relief, debt relief, and grant funding. said in December 2021.
And the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in September 2022 that would award $5.5 million in grants for HBCUs to conduct research on housing and community development.
Frederiksen said Fisk University received funding through a federal loan program to build a large traditional residence, but that structure would not be ready for students until 2024 at the earliest. Container dormitories, Frederiksen said, serve as a faster solution to the school’s housing problem. She added that the $4 million came from additional donors.
Meanwhile, other projects like the HBCU Healthy Housing Initiative (H3) of the Virginia-based advocacy group Student Housing of America are partnering with universities to build additional housing. So far, the organization has worked with Southern University and A&M College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to transform an abandoned property near campus into housing for 564 students, SHA President Shaun Wiggins told NBC News. It is the first of what the organization hopes will be many affordable converted properties for HBCU students. Wiggins said the organization is currently working to acquire another HBCU housing property in Georgia, but its efforts aren’t limited to providing students with places to live.
“Students need more than just affordable housing,” Wiggins said. “We want to take a holistic approach. Housing is only one part; success means that while you are studying you have a safe place to live, food to eat, you have to have good credit. We want to partner with food banks or restaurants. We are constantly looking to grow this initiative. We are asking what else we can offer.”
Experts like Wiggins and Strayhorn say it will become increasingly important for colleges and universities to be creative and innovative in the face of insecure student housing. And for Fisk University, the container dormitories are a quick fix that the school will use for years to come, Frederiksen said.
“I don’t have enough perspective to say what will work for other institutions. But do I think it is a situation that is replicable in other places? Absolutely,” she said.