Decline in on-campus residents challenges UWRF

Posted March 29, 2021

In an average year, about 2,400-2,500 students live on the UW-River Falls campus. Last fall semester, that number declined steadily from September to December.

“Then, by the start of spring semester, we were down to 1,370,” Karla Thoennes, director of Residence Life, said in an email. At this point, occupancy has slipped to 54% of the average.

Thoennes said these low rates of residency have a significant impact on the university both financially and in terms of fostering a sense of community.

“The residence halls have to pay for everything,” she said. “All of our borrowing that we have to do for building and renovation we have to pay for, all the utilities. Maybe there’s less hot water being used or less electricity, but not enough to make up for 50% of the income.

“We’re not built for being occupied at 50%,” she added.

Thoennes said it will take a while to recover from the financial situation COVID has put Residence Life in, and it is still unclear if there will be state or federal aid to help offset any of the losses. According to UW System policies, Residence Life is not allowed to carry reserves in large enough amounts to help the COVID situation.

“It’s a fairly small percentage of our overall budget that we can carry from one year to the next. We can only do it if we have a large capital project that’s already been approved and is moving forward so then we can put aside money,” said Thoennes.

Emma Polucha is a sophomore student who is double majoring in biomedical science and business administration. Her roommate moved out after the fall semester, but Polucha decided to stay in order to keep her position on the executive board of the Residence Hall Association.

Polucha said there is not much socialization and she doesn’t know as many people on her floor.

“It’s definitely taken a toll on the feeling of community on the floor,” Polucha continued. “I don’t know anybody’s name other than my residents, which is very different from last year because I knew everybody’s name on my floor whether or not I hung out with them. I’ll see people passing on my way to the drinking fountain or the shower and I won’t even know who they are.”

Changes in the guest policy are helping, Polucha said. Last semester, no guests were allowed in anyone’s room. Now each resident may have one other person from the same residence hall in their room as long as they follow a list of conditions. Polucha said there have been changes in the dining hall as well.

“In the first semester they only allowed tables of two because if you and your roommate went you could technically eat together because you lived together. This semester they have it now where they’ll have a table with six chairs so more people can eat together. Which I think is really helping the mood on campus,” said Polucha.

Though things have not been status quo, Thoennes said there have been a few positives.

“We have students who’ve always wanted a single room who are getting one this semester. If we get to fuller occupancy in the fall, which is our hope, it’ll be a little switch for them because we won’t have the luxury of giving single rooms,” said Thoennes.

The Residence Life staff hopes to return to traditional residence hall occupancy rates this upcoming fall. Thoennes said this will mean first- and second-year students will be required to live on campus again, since there are currently many exceptions and exemptions in place for online learners to stay home.