Lifestyle Renting

The College Towns Best Prepared to Manage a Surge in Demand for Off-Campus Housing

Preparations for the start of the fall semester of college is something popular for students during this time. This year, however, even more so, students have to not only decide whether they will be returning to college this fall, but also where they will be staying.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a strain on universities, forcing them to reconsider the way the 2020-2021 academic year is to unfold. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, across the U.S., some universities have closed their campuses, others will keep them open, and a number of them have implemented a hybrid system. According pre-lease data presented in a Yardi Matrix webinar, regardless of how classes will be held, students would still rather return to campus, and with some universities reducing their dormitory capacity, demand for off-campus housing is expected to increase.

We wanted to see how well prepared college towns are as far as accommodating students coming to campus in the fall while maintaining the social distancing regulations. In order to determine that, we looked at residential housing units available off-campus in the nation’s top 100 college towns based on the share of enrolled students in those cities according to the U.S. Census.

Nationally, There are 2 Rental Units Available to Every One Person Enrolled in College

When looking at the overall population in the U.S., the enrollment rate is only of 7%, which includes both undergraduate and graduate enrollment. With about 36% renter housing units in the nation, someone enrolled in college anywhere in the U.S. could, hypothetically, have access to two rental units. However, this scenario would exist only if college students didn’t depend on a specific location, such as college towns, and would be looking for a rental anywhere in the nation and there would be no other people looking to rent.

Most college towns have a renter majority given the high number of students living there and renting while completing their studies. Land is obviously a limited resource and even more so in college towns, which are usually small cities. For this reason, nationally, 61% of rental units are part of multifamily housing. In more than half of the college towns analyzed, multi-unit housing represents more than 75%. Furthermore, the configuration of 2 or 3 bedroom units represents a majority in 84 out of 100, indicating the popular trend of sharing a rental with peers.

It’s not something new that when it comes to housing in college, many opt for sharing a housing unit with at least one other person. This explains why, when looking at the 100 college towns in our study, there are on average 2 students for each available rental unit.

Top 20 College Towns Best Prepared for Student Accommodation for Fall Semester 2020

Given the pressure of social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, living in housing units with multiple roommates is not the best option for the upcoming academic year. Looking at the number of students enrolled potentially in search of off-campus housing and the available rental housing units in the top 100 college, we came up with the following top indicating the 20 college towns best prepared to accommodate students in the fall.

Out of the 20 best-prepared college towns in the nation, 3 are in Texas and 2 in each California and Mississippi. The best prepared college town is Greenville in North Carolina with the ratio between enrolled students and rental units being 1.05. The last in our top is Weatherford, OK with an average of 1.41 people enrolled in college per housing unit.

On average, the enrollment rate for the top 20 college towns is of 30%, with the highest being in Ellensburg, WA, having 39% of its population enrolled in college. In all of the 20 college towns, renters represent a majority of the total population. New Brunswick, NJ has the highest share of renter occupied housing units, 83%. It also has the lowest median age of all the college towns on our list, 232, while Berkeley, CA has the highest median age, 30.8. Furthermore, all of the 20 cities except Champaign, IL and Berkeley, CA have a majority of renter units with 2 or 3 bedrooms.

5 Universities and Their Adjusted Plans for Fall Semester 2020

To better understand what students are to expect of the 2020-2021 academic year and the changes universities are implementing to ensure a safe learning environment, we looked at 5 universities from 5 of the college towns in our list to see what awaits them both on and off-campus.

Florida State University
Florida State University is planning on starting its fall semester on August 24th. Classes will be held both online and in-person, with in-person classes ending after Thanksgiving break. There will be a limit of 25-50% maximum capacity for in-person classes. Measures are also being taken to reduce the student density in residence halls. Florida State University will be refunding the housing fees for those who have changed their minds about staying on campus during this academic year. However, Tallahassee is third on our list of 20 best prepared universities, with a ratio of 1.15 college enrolled students to a housing unit, which means finding housing off-campus should be fairly easily for those considering this option.

Texas A&M University
Texas A&M University is planning on bringing all of its students back to campus for the 2020-2021 academic year. With an average of 1.85 students per rental unit, and 61st on our list, College Station is fairly prepared for accommodating those students not wanting to live on campus. However, not all classes will be in person, as some courses will be held online while others will embrace a hybrid system. For the in-person classes, students will have to wear some type of face covering and the maximum capacity will be of only a third of the regular size. Furthermore, all classes will end the week of Thanksgiving break.

Michigan State University
Michigan State University is embracing a hybrid system for the academic year starting in the fall of 2020. All in-person courses end right before Thanksgiving break with students returning to campus only for the second semester, after Christmas break. However, students can choose to not attend in-person classes and not return to campus, thus completing their academic year entirely online. This is not the worst decision given that East Lansing is 94th on our list of best prepared college towns for off-campus student accommodation, with a ratio of student per housing unit of 3.6.

Stanford University
With a share of 76% of the Stanford population being enrolled in college, the ratio of student per housing unit is of 4.72, putting Stanford on the 97th place on our list. However, Stanford University has made some adjustments to the number of students allowed on campus for the 2020-2021 academic year. While the vast majority of courses will be held online, a limited number of students will be returning to campus for the fall semester. Among them are freshmen, sophomores and transfer students. Juniors and seniors are allowed to come to campus during the spring semester, as those that attend in the fall will not be returning until the summer semester starts. In-person classes will end before Thanksgiving break, and students have the option of taking all their courses online if they don’t want to return to campus for this academic year.

University of Connecticut
University of Connecticut is also planning on opening its campus to all students for the fall semester. While the courses will be a combination between in-person, online or a mix between the two, some adjustments will also be made concerning the start and end dates of this first semester. That is to include a sooner move-in date and an earlier end to the semester. Also, students will be tested two weeks before the first day of classes. With a plan of also reducing the population density on campus, faculty members that can work from home and the students taking online courses only don’t need to be on campus at all. This could even help Storrs overall, as there are about 12 students per rental housing unit in this college town, making it almost impossible for social distancing regulations to be respected. This is what puts it in last place on our list of 100 college towns.

The 2020-2021 academic year requires additional preparation when it comes to housing, regardless of whether on or off-campus. Given the current COVID-19 situation, students must ensure that whatever learning and housing options they choose, it is the best and the safest for them and those around them.


  • We used data from the 2018 U.S. Census Bureau, with 5-year estimates related to school enrollment, tenure, number of households. For school enrollment we used the following categories: enrolled in college, undergraduate years & graduate or professional school. This was considered to be the demand variable in our study. The number of units that are available for rent was considered to be the offer, or supply.
  • The ratio of student to housing unit was determined by diving the population of individuals enrolled in college to all rental housing units for each college town.
  • College towns were selected to be cities with population between 10.000 and 300.000 and have a minimum of 25% of the population to be enrolled in college (undergraduate, graduate, and professional school). We took the first 100 college towns by total percentage of enrollment.


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About the author

Sanziana Bona

Sanziana Bona is a creative writer and researcher for RENTCafé, with a strong passion for the dynamic real estate market, covering topics from lifestyle to market trends. She has a B.A. in International Relations and Spanish from Michigan State University, a LL.M. in International Business Law, Contracting and International Relations from Instituto Superior de Derecho y Economía. You can connect with Sanziana via email.

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