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Slower enrollment growth halts plans to build additional upperclassmen housing

Mercer Residence Life employees discuss housing at the Residence Hall Association town hall on Oct. 16. At the meeting, students were confused over the status of the plans for the upperclassmen residence hall.
Mercer Residence Life employees discuss housing at the Residence Hall Association town hall on Oct. 16. At the meeting, students were confused over the status of the plans for the upperclassmen residence hall.

Plans for a 300-student residence hall geared towards upperclassmen were drawn up last year, but lower freshmen enrollment and other variables indicated that there was likely not enough demand to justify building the facility for the fall 2021 semester, administrators said.

“You have to walk a fine line between having enough housing to meet the needs but not having too much housing,” said James Netherton, Executive Vice President of Administration and Finance. “That’s wasted money.”

While complete designs were drawn up by the same architectural firm that designed Legacy Hall, the building was not actually officially set for breaking ground. According to Netherton, it was designed so that — if there was a need — there were plans available.

“We were trying to design based on ‘what do we think will be the most we could possibly grow over the next several years’ and how can we accommodate those needs,” Netherton said. 

The idea for the residence hall originated from a summer planning retreat leading up to the 2018-2019 academic school year. There, administration officials decided that they needed plans drawn up for a new residence hall to house upperclassmen, Netherton said. 

This decision was a response to what Netherton called the “unprecedented” freshman class that entered Mercer in 2018. That year, Mercer enrolled its largest freshman class in its history, so the administration asked: would there be enough housing if the following freshman classes continued to grow at that rate? The answer was no.

“When we got to that point, we assessed what was the best solution and we came up with a solution if it was needed,” Netherton said. “Then it is a matter of OK, it might be needed. Is it going to be?”

This year, however, the freshman class did not grow at a rate that would have made it necessary to build the new residence hall. 

While the class entering Mercer in 2019-2020 was the school’s second largest freshman class in Mercer’s history, the university’s modeling suggested that — with this new data — the current on campus housing would meet the demand for the next two years at least, Netherton said.

“We want to be able to provide all the housing that our students need but we want to keep the costs down,” Netherton said. “That means don’t overbuild. Don’t get too excited. You’re trying to balance those two. That’s why we decided last May it wasn’t time to start the project.”

The design of the project was intended to fill a hole in Mercer’s current upperclassmen housing supply — to provide upperclassmen students an apartment-style living environment with a greater number of community spaces seen in a facility like Legacy Hall, said Jeff Takac, director of Housing and Residence Life.

“We were thinking of building something that’s a little more junior-friendly,” Takac said. “We still want to have that (community) in the common space, but in the room you want your own space because you’re a junior and you want your own space.”

The project would have taken around 18 months to finish. While over time most of the construction costs would be covered by room and board and donations, Netherton said, it is still an endeavor that requires some foresight. 

“If you are going to do it, you better need it long-term,” Netherton said. “Once you build that building, it’s going to be around for 50 years, and you’re going to be paying for it for 30. We don’t want to build unless and until we are confident that is going to be really needed. Not just would it be nice to have, not just would it be a great crowning achievement — do we really need it?”

These considerations, however, are still ongoing. The administration maintains a complex algorithm that models the expected demand for housing on Mercer’s campus in future years, Netherton said.

The algorithm takes into consideration a lot of uncertain factors, Netherton said, such as freshmen enrollment, students transferring in and out from Mercer, the number of fourth-year students who decide to stay on campus as well as a variety of other factors. 

Depending on what that demand will look like in the future, Mercer may or may not see the building on campus, and what it will look like in terms of size and accommodations will depend both on housing demand and student preferences.

However, with possible plans in hand, if they see the need, a lot of the initial work has already been done.

“I think it would be easy and quick to pick up because I think we’ve eliminated a lot of the legwork,” Takac said. “The groundwork has been done and now it is ‘are we ready to go ahead and start officially?’”


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