August 26, 1997 in Nation/World

Vacancy Rate Reflects Enrollment Sag WSU Students Can Afford To Be Picky

Eric Sorensen Staff writer
 

This town was a study in lines Monday.

The line for student IDs, the line at the campus cash machines, the line at the bookstore checkout, the line at the student union Starbucks stand.

With the start of fall semester classes, there were only a few exceptions, like no line at the library circulation desk or the Hare Krishna table in front of Todd Hall.

Most notably, there weren’t any students queuing up at the local apartment rental agencies.

Long lines may be a growth industry here, but school officials have been confounded in drawing their basic raw material: student bodies.

Enrollment has failed to live up to some rather industrious projections lately, creating a renter’s market that hasn’t been seen here in years.

“There’s just not enough people,” said Kathy Wilson, property manager for DRA Rentals, who estimates the rental vacancy rate is now the highest in two decades.

Usually, the Pullman vacancy rate hovers around 1 or 2 percent, with desperate single students scrounging for basement apartments and student families heading for the hinterlands of Colfax and Palouse.

But enough apartments have been built in the past five years to house more than 2,000 people. Meanwhile, WSU has drawn in fewer than 600 new undergraduates.

If the local population stays the same, the vacancy rate will approach 9 percent, according to a recent study by the Washington Center for Real Estate Research.

Property owners like Faiza Al-Hasso are going begging. The Seattle resident spent the weekend in town desperately trying to rent a four-bedroom house - pets allowed - for $750 a month. One student offered her $500. She refused. He walked.

“He wanted it very badly,” she said Monday while posting fliers around campus, “but he wanted to pay less and less.”

With hundreds of newly built units on College Hill and along the bus routes that students now travel for free, many renters are finding they can get new places for the money that once bought only “really crappy dives,” said John Musella, a senior and director of the WSU housing commission.

“You’re going to find a lot of students saying, ‘We have standards and we’re not going to live in these types of environments,”’ Musella said.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

For years, WSU’s top administrators were talking about the “Baby Boom echo” - tens of thousands of high school graduates expected to boost the state’s college enrollment by 84,000 by the year 2010. WSU’s Pullman enrollment was expected to approach 25,000, a 50 percent increase. But last fall’s enrollment of 17,300 fell far short of projections, which state Sen. James West, R-Spokane, called “a lot of hype.” He echoed the sentiments of several other legislators angry about funding students who didn’t show up.

“We certainly aren’t seeing the demand that was predicted,” West said.

Administrators have scrambled to figure out what went wrong. The most common explanation is that a booming economy on the West Side - the state’s true Cougar breeding ground - has prompted many high school graduates to put off going to college. Those who are enrolling are choosing to live at or near home and attend the University of Washington - where enrollment increased on schedule - or the community colleges, which had 4,000 more students than expected.

School officials are now making more tenuous predictions.

WSU President Sam Smith last week told city officials that enrollment could grow a modest 1 or 2 percent this fall. Official numbers won’t be due until Sept. 3.

Provost Gretchen Bataille said emerging WSU efforts to teach students away from the Pullman campus through branch campuses, county-level learning centers, the Internet and other methods may be having an effect.

“It makes sense,” she said. “Everyone anticipated that over the long haul - given distance learning, branch campuses, learning centers … - all the things going on in technology would eventually probably mean the residential campuses would not grow at the pace you might anticipate given the old 18-year-olds-go-to-college model.”

Gus Kravas, vice provost for student affairs, remained optimistic that the state’s graduating high school seniors will eventually find their way to Pullman. But he said some things are just hard to predict.

“I couldn’t have predicted three years ago that the employment rate in the state of Washington would be the lowest since 19-whatever it was, 25, 30 years ago,” he said. “That probably would have been a factor, had I known that.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Color Photos


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