Appalachian State University has a history of being a rural teacher’s college designed to educate the rural, often less economically privileged, mountain communities. The recent changes in Appalachian State’s housing approach are a shift away from that history. Across the country universities are facing an epidemic of student housing and food insecurity. The effective privatization of the Appalachian State housing system is only going to fuel further student instability and threatens every value that the university claims to hold.
In recent years, through the work of organizations like the Hope Lab, a growing consensus is building of rampant food and housing insecurity among college students. Nationally, over half of all college students are home insecure, and nearly 18% are some form of homeless. Four-year colleges are not immune to the problem, with around a quarter of the student body affected by moderate to severe housing insecurity and around 1-2% experiencing some form of homelessness. When students are facing imminent homelessness, shockingly enough, they tend to fare worse in school. This is an issue that Appalachian State recognizes and it has recently initiated a study to better understand home and food insecurity at the university.
Our universities, organizations that many students undergo financial stress because of, should be the stopgap to ensure students are able to have a roof over their heads as housing prices increase. Appalachian State is doing the opposite of this. Through its endorsement of P3 (private-public partnerships) under the Millennium Development Program, Appalachian State is effectively privatizing the housing at the university. P3s are disguised privatization; they claim to be a tool to allow private and public entities to cooperate, but instead occur when the university allows a private corporation to profit off an aspect of university life. In this case, a private company will own a substantial amount of student dorms, and a large portion of the rent for those complexes will go to that private corporation. At its core the university is allowing private companies to profit off the housing crisis of their students. While the buildings will revert to university control in around forty years (coincidently the lifespan of these buildings), in the meantime this is privatization.
These P3’s will only increase the cost of housing for students. The university is claiming that their housing is already below market price. J.J Brown claimed that the cost for housing is around $480 a month which puts us far below the market price. What he does include is how those numbers are artificially designed to look good for the university. Those numbers do not include the required meal plan for students which raises the price of housing as on-campus dining is significantly more expensive than the alternative. In addition, the style of dorm being planned is suite style similar to Summit Hall, increasing the cost to around $550. This does not include the rise in price that will occur as a result of privatization. Privatization will increase the base cost of housing even more than the $550 initial cost. At a meeting this fall, when pressed on the issue of comparing P3’s to traditional funding models, Vice Chancellor for Business Affairs, Paul Forte said “I think [housing costs] will go up as a result of P3’s”. Students cannot afford that rise in housing costs. Earlier in the same public meeting, J.J. Brown stated concern for the rise in housing insecurity among college students, yet he still endorses a plan that will dramatically increase the cost of campus housing.
The university is claiming that it does not have the money to finance new dorm buildings as well as new academic buildings. They claim the only way to get both is through this privatization scheme. However, at the exact same moment as this privatization plan is being discussed, the university is pushing forward with the $38.2 million football stadium expansion known as the Endzone project, for which up to $29 million will come from the revenue bond money that we have access to. If we have access to that money, why are we forced to choose between academics and housing? If the one guaranteed expense is athletics, which does not make the university money, it shows how problematic our priorities are.
At that same fall meeting, Paul Forte, in an attempt to make the case for student needs, stated “If you are building a residence hall that doesn’t meet the needs of today’s students, it does not help us with the attractivity of us as a university”. The needs of today’s students are a roof over our heads. The needs of today’s students are to avoid getting price-gouged by a housing situation that all freshmen are forced to participate in, by a university whose priority should be educating its students. The needs of today’s students are not to be viewed as dollar signs from which to generate profit for a private corporation. These are the needs of the students, and if Mr. Forte thinks that today’s students need expensive dorms, he is mistaken. Across the country, the dorms that fill up first are the affordable ones.
This privatization effort is clearly not a responsible solution for a college that likes to tout itself as sustainable in all aspects, and as a quality place for education. Academic success is not a priority when you are struggling to keep a roof over your head, and chronic home insecurity is not a good omen for a university attempting to be socially sustainable. If the P3 effort continues, the university needs to at least check its own priorities and ensure some of those facilities are affordable and accessible. Appalachian State is forgetting its history as a rural mountain college where youth, regardless of economic background, could come and receive a quality education. We need to return to that legacy and adequately address the needs of our students starting with the basics — a roof.