View from the Academe: Housing on the University of South Carolina’s Urban Campus

by Katie Sloan

Like Austin, Madison, Columbus, Raleigh and a few other cities across the country, Columbia, South Carolina, shares the distinction of being home to a flagship state university and the state capitol, as well as being one of the larger cities in the state. Having a campus in the middle of an urban environment poses challenges in normal times, and a pandemic has brought forth even more issues when it comes to operating housing. 

SHB recently spoke with April Barnes, executive director of housing at the University of South Carolina, to hear how the university has dealt with the challenges of COVID.

SHB: Can you give us an overview of the campus and housing at the University of South Carolina?

April Barnes: The University of South Carolina (UofSC) is a large flagship institution located in Columbia — the state capital. When I came to interview here, I’d spent most of my career at mid-size regional campuses. UofSC’s campus sits in the middle of a fairly large city so I was worried the university would not have that small campus feel I was accustomed to. When I arrived for my interview, the facilities operations team took me on a tour, saying they were going to show me the good, the bad and the ugly. We got to the university’s historic Horseshoe area, surrounded by historic residence halls. You know you are in downtown Columbia on an urban campus, but it is very much set apart from the rest of the city, which gives that small campus feel. Our housing stock is unique because of the variety of halls we have on campus. We have buildings that were built in the 1800s. They’ve been renovated many times over the years, but their bones remain from that period. We also have student housing that was built in the 1950s and ‘60s as UofSC continued to expand. We also have some apartment style quad units that were built in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We have high rises and other types of buildings that are typical of many state universities around the nation today. We have quite a varied stock. 

SHB: How many students live on-campus?

Barnes: We have about 9,300 beds when you include our Greek village and our university foundation property, 650 Lincoln. We have a lot of unique partnerships that make us different from other traditional housing models. Of our stock, about 45 percent are apartments. Suite-style halls make up roughly 33 percent, and 22 percent are typical, community-style halls. We do have a freshman live-on requirement. We can house our first-year students, but we struggle to house our continuing students; we don’t have as many beds as we need.

SHB: Where is the demand for more housing coming from?

Barnes: From our second- and third-year students who want to continue to live on-campus. We typically have a waiting list of about 2,000 continuing students. Usually we have 5,800 to 6,000 first-year students in housing and about 2,000 sophomores living on-campus in a normal year. That leaves us room for about 1,500 juniors and seniors. We have quite the wait list. Our living-learning communities would love to keep our sophomores, juniors and seniors integrated, but unfortunately, we don’t have the capacity.

SHB: Have you developed any new housing recently or do you have plans for any new housing?

Barnes: We built our Honors Residence Hall in 2009, which added 530 beds to our stock. We are hoping to build our Campus Village project in the near future. It was scheduled to open Fall 2022 but COVID has delayed the project. We are all set to start construction when we can resume with the plan. That will add 1,800 beds to our stock of traditional and suite-style housing. We are partnering with Greystar, who will handle the management on the facilities and maintenance side, but the university is self-funding the development. 

SHB: What does that project entail?

Barnes: There are three phases of the Campus Village project. Stage I has been approved through our state process. We have plans for Stage II, which would take down two of our older buildings and replace them with new residence halls. Stage III would come later. If all three stages are developed, we would increase our housing by 3,700 beds. 

SHB: Do you have an ongoing capital plan for remodels?

Barnes: Yes, we do. We had a few projects underway, but we stopped those during COVID. We were in the process of expanding our Honors Hall. We also have some buildings in our Horseshoe that need some TLC. We’d like to do thorough renovations on those. We would also love to renovate our three high rises. We are trying to work all of them into our five-year plan, but that will have to be adjusted due to the effects of COVID on our budget.

SHB: What amenities do you find the current generation wants in on-campus housing?

Barnes: In our recent builds, we have added a variety of study spaces. Not just communal study spaces, but spaces where students can go and study individually. We’ve put white boards on the walls, as well as TVs that they can connect to for presentations. We’ve created academic spaces in the halls, and our academic buildings have begun modeling after us, creating some study spaces in the various colleges. We have a makers’ space in our Rhodos Fellows learning community. And we have a number of faculty-led learning communities on-campus, where faculty members’ offices are housed in our residence halls. 

SHB: How did the university’s housing department handle COVID? 

Barnes: We worked hand-in-hand with our student health services team; our associate vice president is over both housing and health services. We were able to partner with them, as well as work with the university to procure PPE. As an institution, we decided that it would be safest to reduce capacity in select residence halls. In effect, we made our traditional double rooms into single rooms. We took a building off-line, knowing we would have to provide quarantine and isolation housing. That further reduced our capacity and occupancy. We wanted to make sure we could provide for our students and give them a safe environment. I am very proud of my team and how we have, and continue to, navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. 

SHB: Did you open on time this fall? How did your opening go?

Barnes: We implemented mandatory testing for incoming students this fall and expanded our move-in to a six-day process. We organized it so that families could come in physically distanced. We followed all guidelines implemented by the university, city, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and students had to show evidence of a negative COVID test prior to arriving on campus. It went so seamlessly we were slow at some points. We do a really good job with move-ins. We are in an urban setting, so we have limited on-campus parking and as a result, we partner with the city of Columbia to take over metered spots. Our students and their parents let us know they felt safe. Our move-in satisfaction surveys were 96 percent positive. This spring, we did the same thing; we asked students to test prior to coming back to campus and they were compliant. We have quarantine and isolation housing available even if we have to secure additional beds like we did this fall. We partnered with a local hotel to provide quarantine and isolation housing as well as the National Advocacy Center here in Columbia [Editor’s note: The National Advocacy Center is operated by the U.S. Department of Justice to train U.S. attorneys. The NAC trains 20,000 attorneys annually. Its campus is within the UofSC campus]. They have housing for training that was not being used due to COVID, so we were able to use some of their beds.

SHB: How are you handling students who are quarantined?

Barnes: They are moved to one of two places, either the hotel or the NAC’s housing facility, in a single room. We work closely with our health center and have a special duty rotation to serve these students so they have staff to interact with. We have case managers in student health who talk to them regularly. Two weeks is a long time to be quarantined and isolated by yourself in a room, and our students were feeling the mental health effects of that. We started a program later in the fall to let students outside for periods of time. They really liked that, so we have continued that this spring. We work with our dining center to provide fun meals for them. Members of our president’s cabinet have also reached out to these students to make them feel that they are not lost. quarantine and isolation housing has created some challenges. We committed to thoroughly cleaning the spaces and our staff created new cleaning protocols, not only for our residence halls, but also for those quarantine and isolation spaces. I’ve always thought that housing was like a little university within itself. We do a lot of the same things a university does — education, budgeting, facilities. 

SHB: You contracted with hotels for overflow housing. How is that going?

Barnes: It went really well. We contracted with two hotels, and they’ve both been amazing partners. Transportation was our biggest challenge. We had to get students to and from the hotel. Our transportation services department worked with us to provide shuttle services to the hotel. We have to schedule the students for the shuttles because of COVID. There is a lot of administration work that goes with that and our quarantine and isolation housing. We have staff that works with our students in quarantine and isolation housing to ensure their needs are met. We have partnered with Aramark, who holds our dining services contract, to deliver meals to the residents in hotels. 

SHB: How do you work with off-campus housing providers?

Barnes: Columbia has a very strong off-campus student housing market. We follow it very closely and even have a secret shopper program for exploration of rates and services. We do market studies as well, to make sure what we are offering on-campus is somewhat compatible with what exists off-campus. We want to be below the market for our students. We look at our off-campus projects as colleagues and work to assist our students in finding housing off-campus, especially when they become upperclassmen. We have an office in our student life department that works with our off-campus housing market to connect students, as well as maintain good relationships with the owners and managers. That is very important to the University of South Carolina. We are unique in that because we don’t have enough beds on our campus to house everyone. We prepare our freshmen that the likelihood of them living off-campus after their first year is very high. In October of their freshman year, we start that conversation because they need to start thinking about where to live their second year. With that said, we encourage all students to apply for housing in their continuing years because we believe the living-learning experience on-campus truly can’t be replicated or replaced. 

SHB: How did you find your way to student housing?

Barnes: I grew up in Northern Minnesota, right near the Canadian border. I went to college close to home at the University of North Dakota (UND). I didn’t have a great first year; I really struggled to find my community and how to get involved. My RA asked me to apply to be an RA. I did, and my second year was completely different. I found a group of peers in my RA team who supported me. I was able to build community with my residents and give them a better experience than I had. I fell in love with helping students succeed and I realized that student affairs was a thing and I could do it for a living. I became a residence hall director and stayed at UND for my master’s degree. I had the opportunity to work in the apartment population as well. I worked with a diverse population from single grad students to married student housing. From there, I went to work as a residence hall coordinator at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina. I moved to Eastern Kentucky University where I was an assistant director of housing for a few years before becoming the director of student life. I had an amazing time doing that and seeing that side of the student experience. When student affairs had a reorganization, I was given the opportunity to come back to housing as the executive director. It was amazing to come back to my roots and rebuild a department with a different lens — having spent time in student life for a few years the student experience was very important to me. I’ve always wanted a large institution experience and when I interviewed at the University of South Carolina just over two years ago I knew I had found the right fit. 

SHB: How are you navigating COVID times?

Barnes: We were considered essential staff, so we’ve been on-campus the entire time. We found out about COVID right before spring break, so the university decided to close for an extra week. When the decision was made to go online for the rest of the semester, all of our students’ belongings were still in our halls. We had to work with state and local officials to create a plan for students to come retrieve their belongings. We spent all of May doing that. In some cases, where students lived too far away, we had to do a pack-and-ship or pack-and-store program for them. We’ve been working pretty diligently. We are testing our staff regularly for COVID. It has been an interesting time navigating these uncharted waters.

—Interview by Randall Shearin

This article was originally published in the January/February 2021 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here

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