Cal Poly Humboldt is anticipating an influx of new students – and housing woes

Cal Poly Humboldt students protest a lack of on-campus housing options Feb. 8 outside the Student Activities Center. KARTER V./CONTRIBUTED

The new Cal Poly Humboldt is gaining attention with a record number of applications for its fall 2023 class. But the expected influx of new freshmen is causing headaches for current students. 

The university announced Monday that the anticipated growth in freshman and transfer students this fall would mean that many sophomores, juniors and seniors could be placed in hotels and off-campus options near the Arcata campus instead of in on-campus residence halls.

The decision triggered protests from students who argue the move will wreck their college experience. 

The Humboldt campus, the most northern and remote of Cal State’s 23 campuses, has seen undergraduate enrollment drop from a high of 8,242 students in 2015 to just 5,303 this past fall, according to CSU records. But to help reverse that, the campus officially became the state’s third polytechnic campus — and the only one in Northern California — last year. Gov. Gavin Newsom dedicated nearly $500 million to transform the campus with new STEM-focused and environmental majors, upgraded laboratory spaces, expanded broadband and building renovations. 

In January, the campus received about 19,000 applications for fall 2023 — nearly double the 9,700 applications for last year.

The campus anticipates a substantial enrollment increase this fall, although it’s still too early to know just how many freshmen and new transfers will enroll this fall, according to Peggy Metzger, interim director of enrollment management for the campus. “Full enrollment” for the campus would be a total of 12,000 students, she added.

Anticipating growth, the university expanded housing by leasing 250 beds from Super 8 and Motel 6 properties within three miles of the campus in Arcata, said Grant Scott-Goforth, a spokesman for the campus. That is in addition to about 100 beds that were leased last year from a nearby Comfort Inn that has been housing students, he said. 

Meanwhile, first-time, first-year students will have priority access to about 2,100 beds in on-campus residential dorms, while returning and transfer students will have access to about 1,000 off-campus dorms this fall, Scott-Goforth said. 

“The university is continuing to look to lease additional housing for students amid an influx of enrollment,” he said. “Cal Poly Humboldt is experiencing enrollment growth due to strong academic programs as well as the polytechnic designation.” 

Cypress student housing suites on the Humboldt campus. (Photo courtesy of Cal Poly Humboldt)

Upset families

But current students and their families are upset that they could be forced to a hotel — or worse, into Arcata’s tight and expensive rental market. Hundreds of students protested the housing change on Wednesday and are planning more rallies and sit-ins in the coming weeks.

“They need to cap enrollment,” said Karter V., a current freshman and anthropology major at the campus. (Karter asked that their full last name not be included in this article.)

“We just want our housing. We just want to be able to live on campus. We’re worth more than just being forced to live in hotels.” 

Karter said they chose the Humboldt campus because of the changes and improvements expected with the polytechnic designation. But they also want the full college experience that includes on-campus housing.

“One of the largest components of just being here at college is being able to have a campus life, and for many people, that means living directly on campus,” Karter said. “To have that taken away is devastating, to say the least.” 

Karter’s mother, Johanna Smith, lives in Southern California, where Karter is from. Smith recently started a petition demanding “fair student housing” at the Humboldt campus. More than 2,700 people had signed as of Wednesday evening.

Smith said she’s had to examine unaffordable rental options and learned that it would be impossibly expensive to buy a place.  

Smith said the university’s decision wasn’t announced until after the transfer deadline when students could move to one of the other 22 CSU campuses or elsewhere. Now, if they want to leave Humboldt, they’ll need to wait until next year or choose a private college, she said. 

“If I knew this was going to happen, I would’ve dropped out of Cal Poly Humboldt a long time ago,” wrote one petitioner named Mia Tapia, identified as a transfer student.

“The deadlines to transfer to another school have all closed, and if I decide to transfer out, I will be set back and not able to graduate with my class in 2024, which I worked so hard to stay on track to meet my goal.” 

The campus recently received approval from the CSU board of trustees for new affordable student housing, which breaks ground this month. The new housing complex near Highway 101, known as the Craftsman Mall project, is expected to open to students in 2025. The project includes 950 apartment-style beds, along with study rooms, student lounges, fitness spaces and a barbecue area. 

Last month, President Tom Jackson Jr. told the trustees that the campus is seeing a 140% increase in housing applications for this fall. 

“Housing is our No. 1 barrier to our polytechnic transformation due to the unique housing challenges in our community,” Jackson said, adding that there is little off-campus housing available to students. Ultimately the campus wants to add about 4,000 more beds.

Humboldt has plans for another new housing development that would add 650 beds at the northwest corner of Library Circle. Construction for this project, estimated to cost $175 million, would begin in summer 2024. It wouldn’t open until August 2026. 

Applications up

However, for many people, Humboldt’s increase in applications would be a sign that the university is on the right track.

Metzger said the new poly is attracting new students in part because it is debuting new majors this fall that include mechanical engineering, marine biology, geospatial science, cannabis studies and fire science management. 

But when compared with Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Cal Poly Pomona, Humboldt is still “small” and would remain smaller at full enrollment of about 12,000 students, she said. “That’s part of the attraction — the Cal Poly designation and the prestige that comes with that, but it’s still small and hands-on and has that sort of private school feel.”

The campus’ low enrollment numbers have put it on a troubling path to potentially losing funding. 

The Cal State system is under a multiyear agreement with Newsom and the Legislature to increase enrollment to receive increases in state funding. Although many of the 23 campuses have seen enrollment declines, Humboldt was one of seven campuses more than 10% below its state-funded enrollment target. During that January trustee meeting, CSU administrators detailed a plan that warned if Humboldt and the other campuses didn’t increase their enrollments by 2024-25, they would see a 5% cut in funding that would then be distributed to other campuses. Each year thereafter, the campuses would see additional cuts if enrollment doesn’t improve. 

Hotel living

The CSU Chancellor’s Office said none of the campuses guarantee housing for students, although certain populations, such as former and current foster youth and homeless students, receive priority. 

Scott-Goforth, Humboldt’s spokesman, said the hotels that will house upperclassmen will be serviced by city buses that are free to students and a university shuttle service. The hotels also are managed by university and residential life staff, similar to the traditional dorms. Students and university staff are the only people staying at the hotel sites, he said. 

Smith, Karter’s mother, said if the hotel plan does not change, the current students will look for other universities.

Karter said they have already contacted their adviser asking for help with transfer applications. “Most of the CSUs have their transfer applications closed, which means a lot of us are kind of trapped, but I’m trying to apply to several private schools because they’re the only ones with applications still open.” 

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