Welcoming the largest class of undergraduate students this academic year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison continues to face obstacles in accommodating students seeking on-campus housing, leaving questions about the future of UW Housing and its growth.
With the enrollment of 8,465 first-year students this fall, the university was forced to address overflow issues by converting dens and common spaces into dorm rooms as well as larger rooms into triples and quads. The Lowell Center — a campus conference center and hotel — was also transitioned into a temporary residence hall facility.
“Our residence halls opened this fall with 8,469 residents, our largest population ever, and we currently have 8,429 residents,” said UW Housing Director of Marketing and Communications Brendon Dybdahl, underscoring that this number does not include the 200 House Fellows that also live in residence halls.
Of those several thousand housing residents, 1,607 currently reside in triples and quads, while 270 students are housed in the Lowell Center.
Given these issues in accommodating students, UW-Housing was ultimately unable to provide transfer and exchange students on-campus housing due to increased demand.
“Enrollment of new freshmen has grown 34.1% since fall 2013, which is the last year University Housing added any new capacity with the opening of Leopold Hall,” Dybdahl said. “Our approaches have worked for now, and some students really like the social aspect of triples and quads, but they aren’t sustainable ways of managing our spaces.”
UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said that although this year’s incoming class was “larger than anticipated,” the university does not expect class sizes to continue to grow.
However, of the five incoming classes since the fall of 2017, every incoming class — except the class of 2024 who began attending UW-Madison during the fall of 2020 — has been described as the largest incoming class in the university’s history.
The university welcomed a freshman class of 6,610 in the fall of 2017, a class of 6,862 in the fall of 2018 and a class of 7,550 in the fall of 2019 before a smaller class of 7,306 during the fall of 2020.
According to McGlone, the university has been intentionally growing the size of the freshman class since 2017.
“The university has now surpassed the goal it expected to reach,” said McGlone.
On-campus residence halls remain a popular option among first-year students, and UW Housing realizes the necessity to maintain current class sizes and to plan for the long term.
“We consistently house between 89% to 93% of first-year students each year,” Dybdahl said. “That demand is not going away.”
Early in 2021, Gov. Tony Evers recommended the construction of a new College of Letters & Science building, falling in line with the university’s goal of the demolition of the Mosse Humanities Building.
This proposed facility — Levy Hall — will be constructed on the southwest corner of Park Street and West Johnson Street, resulting in the displacement of two UW Housing facilities, Davis Residence Hall and the Zoe Bayliss Co-Op, after the 2022-23 academic year.
“These buildings are relatively small, with only about 80 students total, so the impact isn’t huge, but any loss of beds has some impact with how tight housing is right now,” Dybdahl said.
The UW Housing master plan — which depicts on-campus housing construction and expansion projects between 2004 and 2020 — was last updated in 2008.
“There is not a new Housing-specific plan in development, but we take guidance from the 2015
UW-Madison Campus Master Plan,” Dybdahl said, emphasizing that UW Housing continues to look for opportunities to grow and improve spaces as it works through projects such as the Sellery Residence Hall renovations which began in May 2020 and are expected to be completed in August 2023.
According to Dybdahl, current needs to expand on-campus housing do not require the level of planning provided by a housing-specific master plan.
“We’ve been putting effort into making our case for more on-campus housing, and hopefully the last few years have clearly illustrated that need to help us move forward,” Dybdal said, noting that UW-Madison ranks among the lowest in the Big Ten for on-campus housing capacity available to undergraduate students.
UW-Housing’s primary goals in addressing this growth in students seeking on-campus housing are twofold: reducing density in residence halls and using rooms as they are intended.
“In order to do that and still meet our commitment to house all of the first-year students who want to live on campus, University Housing will need to grow,” emphasized Dybdahl.
The division is currently working with UW-Madison officials to develop ways in which to make this goal a reality.
McGlone stated that several campus areas are working in collaboration with UW Housing to identify potential options. The university would then need the “necessary” funding from both the UW System and the state of Wisconsin to move ahead with building projects.
“New construction within State guidelines often takes a lot of time and planning,” said Dybdahl. “However, given our recent freshman growth without any addition of new residence hall beds in over 8 years, we are looking at options to move this along as quickly as possible.”
UW Housing hopes to have a more developed timeline within the next six months.
“We’re uniquely positioned to provide a great environment for new students, and growth will allow us to make an even better first-year experience for more students,” Dybdahl said.
Regardless, with expectations that next year’s incoming freshman class size is similar to that of this year’s, UW Housing is faced with the same set of issues in housing students.
“We’re looking at all of our options for accommodating students in the short term while we work towards developing new spaces,” Dybdahl said.
A “good number” of triples and quads will likely be utilized as there are not many “immediate'' housing options available in the short term, said Dybdahl. The future use of the Lowell Center as residence hall space has not been determined.
Sophia Vento is the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Cardinal. She previously served as the college news editor. She has covered breaking campus, city, state and sports news, and written in-depth stories about health, culture and education. Any newsroom would be lucky to have Sophia on staff. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiasvento.