Madison’s dire off-campus student housing shortage has found a new way to cause headaches at UW-Madison: Housefellowships.
Housefellows, also known as resident assistants, live in the dorms and help other residents with roommate issues and such, as well as organizing community-building activities. In exchange, they get free housing and a dining plan, which can save students nearly $15,000, depending on the residence hall.
That’s an increasingly tempting proposition for many students, apparently: Applications for housefellow positions roughly doubled this year, according to University Housing. And with 65% of current housefellows opting to stay on for another year, 639 applicants were left to vie for 73 open positions for 2023-24.
University Housing employs 205 housefellows each year.
UW-Madison freshman Sophie Mears was interested in more than the financials: On the first day of college, she’d had a great interaction with one of her Sellery Residence Hall housefellows, and Sophie wanted to be that welcoming face to someone else next year.
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But Sophie and her twin sister, Maddie, both ended up on the waitlist for a housefellowship, leaving the Mears family scrambling to find housing for the twins.
“They’re really stressed,” Mears said of her parents. “It (would be) definitely a benefit financially, since my parents do have to send me and my twin to school and pay for double.”
Current freshman students drove the sharp rise, comprising 70% of the applicants, said Brendon Dybdahl, University Housing director of marketing.
“It was great to have such a competitive candidate pool, but we had to turn down a lot of good applicants,” he said. “Student decisions and behavior across the board have been harder to predict in the wake of the COVID pandemic as things continue returning to normal.”
University Housing has been feeling the crunch all year, in various ways.
Property management companies are seeing some of their housing in prime areas, such as in downtown and Langdon Street, sell out three to four weeks faster than previous years.
Perceptions that off-campus housing is mostly leased for the following year contributed to more returning students opting to stay in the dorms for another year, Dybdahl said in November.
Record class size
This year’s record-size class also put the squeeze on University Housing, requiring the university to pack in more students, converting larger rooms into triples and lounges into quads and sextuplet rooms. UW-Madison also gave financial incentives to returning students to either move off campus or relocate to the far reaches of campus in Eagle Heights.
With record enrollment contributing to the housing crunch this year, UW-Madison lured returning students out of the dorms by offering financial incentives to live elsewhere.
Those strategies created just enough space for University Housing to honor all contracts with incoming freshmen, with about five dozen beds to spare out of a total capacity of 9,200 residents.
UW-Madison plans to admit 500 fewer students for the upcoming class to ease the pressure. However, the university aimed to have a smaller class this year, too, but ended up with a record-breaking number of freshmen when an unexpectedly larger number of accepted applicants decided to attend.
UW-Madison is aiming for a class size of 8,100 students, similar to what it hoped for last year before a higher rates of students accepting created a record-breaking class.
UW-Madison junior William Dettlaff started as a housefellow for Sellery Hall last year and plans to return next fall. The free housing and dining plan give Dettlaff peace of mind — as long as he does his job, he said he’ll have “one less financial struggle” to contend with.
In addition to the financial aspect, which helps as Dettlaff pays his own way through college, he finds it rewarding to build a community with residents and other housefellows.
“You’re going to have the days with construction or when residents are causing issues, being loud,” Dettlaff said. “For me, it doesn’t really feel like a job ... you have your own space, you don’t have to clean your own restrooms, it’s safe and it’s like a little community.”
Fave 5: Reporter Kimberly Wethal shares her favorite stories of 2022
In the weeks before I joined the Wisconsin State Journal in September, I was told this: Remember that a higher education institution is like their own city. It has its own character and struggles, defined by the students who learn there and the faculty who teach them.
I have seen this over and over again, and it was particularly clear when I visited UW-Platteville at Richland a week after the University of Wisconsin System ordered degree-fulfilling classes to cease because of low enrollment. During my visit, I found many of the devastated students to be emotionally invested in their campus community — and committed to saving it.
It's why Richland Center grieving the loss of its once-vibrant campus is my top story of 2022.
UW-Madison has its own slate of issues. There, a growing population is pitted against on- and off-campus housing availability. I wrote about the tactics used to clear returning students out of the dorms to make room for freshmen, and the frenzy that ensued as students put their lives on hold to secure housing for next fall.
At Madison Area Technical College, a key issue is how to alleviate barriers their students face just to get into the classroom. Finding adequate child care is one of them — I wrote about the efforts to expand future access at the Goodman South Campus and its four rural campuses.
Much of my beat is hard news, but some of my favorite stories are features of students who make up the character of campus. I wrote about Kirstan Gimse, the student commencement speaker who's achieving her dream of being a scientist that she saw as unattainable.
I'm looking forward to diving deeper into the beat in 2023 and am so grateful for the support of State Journal subscribers that allows me to be one of the few reporters in the state dedicated solely to covering higher education.
After budget cuts and consolidations, the campus' enrollment is down 90% from 2014, and UW-Platteville was ordered to shutter the campus.
With record enrollment contributing to the housing crunch, UW-Madison lured students out of dorms by offering incentives to live elsewhere.
Management companies are seeing some of their housing in prime areas sell out three to four weeks faster than previous years.
A new Early Learning Center that opened in 2021 at MATC's Truax campus doubled capacity, and a facility at the Goodman South campus could be next.
UW-Madison doctorate student Kirstan Gimse found the courage to go back to school a decade ago from a chemistry professor she would wait on.