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Palomar College student housing proposal raises questions

ESCONDIDO — The Palomar College Governing Board has advanced a proposal championed by Palomar College President Joi Lin Blake to become one of the first community colleges in Southern California with on-campus housing.

After its second public hearing about the on-campus housing prospect, the Governing Board moved to advance campus housing to a Request For Proposal phase at its May 28 meeting and vote on it at its June 11 meeting. If it passes on June 11, it will give developers a chance to submit project ideas for consideration.

The board’s vote took place after a follow-up presentation by Scion Group, a Chicago-based firm which says that its survey distributed to the student body this spring showed a broad appetite for affordable on-campus housing.

Scion staffers had previously presented in front of the Governing Board at its April 23 meeting.

During the second meeting, Governing Board member Norma Miyamoto questioned Scion on the potential for “selection bias” in the methodology it used to survey students, which Scion did by sending out an email asking students to fill out the survey.

In response, Scion’s senior project executive Ann Volz said that while Miyamoto’s concerns are valid, the firm oversampled to make the survey results statistically significant.

Shannon Lienhart, a mathematics professor Palomar College, additionally questioned whether “the company preparing and analyzing the data had a vested interest in the outcome” in an email to The Coast News.

Dr. Joi Lin Blake

Volz said it is “not Scion’s practice to discuss our findings with the press” when asked if the company has ever recommended against student housing during the feasibility study period for a community college.

A review of the company’s website did not yield any examples of the company recommending against building campus housing at a community college.

Volz also declined to explain Scion’s methodology, or provide a copy of the survey questions that the company distributed to students. She also denied comment on whether the group receives a cut of the revenue if a college or university proceeds to develop a housing project in the aftermath of its feasibility study.

In her presentation, Volz further stated that survey data showed enough interest on-campus for over 300 student beds and a 78% rate of students who expressed interest the prospect of campus housing.

On-campus housing would cost between about $750 to $1,000 per bed and per person, per month, according to Volz.

Anthony White, the vice president of Shared Governance for Palomar College’s student government, is currently advocating for Palomar College to develop a homeless student overnight parking program and for a state bill which would mandate that all community colleges provide the same.

White said it is unlikely that student housing would put a halt to broader economic hardship facing students at the college.

“I don’t think housing is the end all solution for homelessness on our campus and among students. We need a variety of solutions,” he said. “Housing being one, overnight parking, off-campus housing options, etc. Housing won’t be built for another three to five years at least. What are friends facing homelessness supposed to do tonight?”

Blake, however, said at the meeting that she believes more “respectful” alternatives to students sleeping in their cars overnight in campus parking lots, such as on-campus housing, are the way forward at the school.

“From an ethical and moral perspective,” Blake said. “I think it’s an indictment against our society that we’re even having to pass legislation to have folks sleep in the parking lot.”

At other community colleges nationwide at which Scion did a feasibility study and subsequently recommended moving forward, mixed results have arisen for both costs and student interest.

Adirondack Community College in rural New York, for which Scion did a feasibility study in 2009, now has over 400 student beds. That housing costs students about $3,350 to about $3,900 per semester, not including mandatory meal expenses.

Similarly, housing at Lake Michigan College in Michigan, another place at which Scion did a feasibility study, costs about $6,000 to $7,250 per school year.

Others, though, have gone in different directions. Walla Walla Community College’s administration rejected campus housing in 2018 after working with Scion beginning in 2017 to put forward a proposal.

Plattsburgh, New York’s Clinton Community College shut down campus housing in the fall 2018 semester due to steadily declining enrollment numbers at both the college and for live-in campus housing. Instead, that former housing building now serves as a community drug rehabilitation center.

Scion had begun doing the feasibility study for Clinton Community College dating back to 2015, but as of July prior to the 2018-2019 school year, only 20 students had signed up to live on-campus out of the possible 200 open slots.

Costs ranged from $2,950 to $3,525 per semester at Clinton.

Given the lack of a full-scale examination of the successes and failures of on-campus housing at community colleges nationwide, Teresa Laughlin, the co-president of the Palomar Faculty Federation union and an economics professor, urged the college to slow down and do its full “due diligence” in its push to realize student housing.

“I know that the president is very interested in having student housing and frankly it’s an exciting idea,” Laughlin said. “My real concern is that it seems like we’re rushing it. It seems impulsive. I feel like if we investigate it a little bit, go to other colleges that have actually done this and seen what are their pros and cons and what has been going on, whether it has been positive or negative, I think that would be prudent.”