Sutphin and Bush: What Virginia Tech’s over-enrollment means for Blacksburg

The following commentary originally appeared in The Roanoke Times on May 26, 2019:

Since Virginia Tech made headlines for surpassing its student enrollment goals, there’s been an understandable tension in Blacksburg.

The university had a target of 6,600 incoming freshmen, but it overshot that number considerably. The official release from the university puts the incoming student population between 7,500 and 7,585 students, but this assumes a higher-than average percentage of students who accepted this spring will not enroll in the fall. If this “melt” rate is the same as previous years, the incoming class will have approximately 7,625 students, or 1,025 over Virginia Tech’s admissions target.

That’s a lot of students — 1,340 more than last year’s incoming class and almost 800 more than the university’s largest-ever freshman class in 2017. For comparison’s sake, The Edge student apartments adjacent to campus has about 910 bedrooms.

While the town has known about Virginia Tech’s plans for growth for years and has planned accordingly, this recent news exceeds the growth rate we expected. Town and university officials meet regularly to discuss the impact of enrollment projections on transportation, infrastructure, and housing. Regarding the latter, the town commissioned the 2015 Downtown Blacksburg Housing Study and the 2018 Downtown Strategy Study, both of which looked into the impact of enrollment growth on Blacksburg’s housing market. Since 2014, more than 1,500 beds of student housing have been built in town, and an additional 3,000 have been approved by the town but not built yet. The construction of denser student housing at Sturbridge and Terrace View means that some buildings will go offline during construction. This further constrains the housing market.

The university and the town must take a hard look at what sort of growth rate we can sustain. When enrollment growth outpaces the development of new student housing, students begin looking for places to live outside of traditional, purpose-built student apartments. This typically means neighborhoods and single family residences. As in any college town, this can lead to lifestyle conflicts between students and long-term residents, but it also means that housing prices go up. For years, first-time homebuyers have had difficulty finding a place to live in Blacksburg because of competition from student housing rental owners. Because rental income from three or four students often exceeds the amount that a family will pay for a mortgage on a starter home, prices have climbed.

Student enrollment growth does not occur in isolation. When the university adds students, it also adds faculty and support staff who also need housing, town services, and a reliable transportation network. With hundreds of extra people comes hundreds of extra cars, especially if freshmen are no longer required to live on campus. Over the years, traffic congestion has become a problem at peak times along Main Street and Prices Fork.

While the town has taken steps to address these issues, the unexpected increase in students complicates matters. The town has planned for the expansion of Blacksburg Transit, but creating new routes and securing the funding for new buses takes more than three months’ notice. Likewise, the Virginia Department of Transportation has plans for a $63 million Western Perimeter Road that will relieve congestion on campus by linking Southgate Drive and Prices Fork Road. That project is currently not funded and a future construction date has not been set.

As Virginia Tech alumni, we also understand that much of the learning that takes place in college happens outside of the classroom. Students and their families are paying big bucks to attend Virginia Tech, but how does their experience change when they live in a study lounge converted into a room for three? When the university waives the requirement for freshman to live on campus, these students miss an important part of the educational experience. Plus, returning students have already found housing accommodations for the upcoming year, limiting the options available to freshman in a town with a high rental occupancy rate. Students have already taken note of long lines at dining centers, limited parking, and a shortage of classroom space.

But what can be done? Since we learned about Virginia Tech’s over-enrollment, town and university officials have met on several occasions to consider ways to minimize the negative impacts on the town. Town staff are in discussions with the New River Apartment Council, owners of large student housing complexes, and Virginia Tech’s Division of Student Affairs to coordinate housing needs. Blacksburg Transit has also made preparations for the influx of new students.

These efforts will be for naught unless Virginia Tech puts measures in place to ensure that it does not over-admit students in the future and works diligently to accommodate as many of the additional students on campus as possible. Along those same lines, if the university wants to grow at a fast pace, it needs to build more campus housing at a similar pace. Virginia Tech has already begun site work on a 200,000-square-foot residence hall where the University Club once sat, but this building will only house 596 students. That’s well below the number of the students over-enrolled this year, and those students will be arriving this fall, not in the two years needed to construct the new building.

While Virginia Tech and Blacksburg have been partners in numerous ways and even received accolades for town-gown relations, we need to do better. The university should view the town as an equal partner when planning for significant student, faculty, and staff growth. Without that necessary partnership, there will be unnecessary divisions between town residents and the university community. There are mechanisms in place to facilitate communication between the town and university, and they need to be taken seriously and fully utilized.

Growth is not bad, but when it occurs in an unplanned, unsustainable fashion, it causes problems for communities and the surrounding region. Blacksburg needs a vibrant university community just as much as Virginia Tech needs a strong and healthy town, both in terms of quality of life and the tax base necessary to provide a level of service that residents expect. Let’s ensure we continue to have both.

Sutphin and Bush are both members of the Blacksburg Town Council.

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