Haskell enrollment expected to drop sharply; housing costs for some students may rise by thousands of dollars

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

The Osceola and Keokuk halls student housing complex are pictured in the background at Haskell Indian Nations University on Tuesday, July 20, 2021.

When in-person classes resume next month at Haskell Indian Nations University, enrollment is expected to be low, and a new pandemic-related policy may significantly boost the cost of housing for some students.

“I think it will be half of what we normally have,” Jean Finch, director of the Haskell Catholic Campus Center, said of Haskell enrollment numbers for the fall semester. “If we have 500 students enroll, that would be good.”

Haskell is scheduled to start classes on Aug. 23. It will be the first time since March 2020 that the Lawrence university has had in-person classes. A university spokeswoman declined to answer questions about projected enrollment, but several people connected to the university community said they’ve heard projections of 400 to 500 students enrolling at Haskell this fall.

Brandon Yellowbird-Stevens, president of the Haskell National Board of Regents, said he also had heard the projection of 400 to 500 students for this fall. When the university shut down in March 2020, enrollment was just under 800 students, and the school has topped 1,000 students in some years.

Yellowbird-Stevens said many tribal communities are being cautious regarding the pandemic after many reservations have been disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. That caution is causing more students to skip attending college, at least for now.

Finch said that caution partly explained lower enrollment, but she also thinks the sudden end to in-person classes in 2020 and difficulties with virtual learning the last school year have contributed to the expected decline.

“Once they go home and start taking care of family again, it is hard to get started again at school,” Finch said.

Or as Jack Wingo, a Haskell student who also is an outreach coordinator with the student center Sacred Ground, said: “Life has just gotten in the way.”

This fall, the cost of housing may get in the way for some students. Haskell recently has announced a new dormitory policy that will allow no more than one person to live in a dormitory room. Most Haskell dorms are designed to be two-person rooms, so the change potentially will cut Haskell’s on-campus housing options in half.

Students are allowed to live off campus, but the cost differences are stark. Haskell students can live in a dormitory for $180 per semester. In Lawrence, that $180 likely would pay for only a couple of weeks of rent, at best, based on current rental prices.

“It is going to cause problems because it is very expensive to live in Lawrence,” Finch said. “That is part of the benefit of going to Haskell. You can live cheaply in the dorms and get a degree without all that debt.”

If Haskell’s enrollment is significantly lower, however, perhaps there will be enough dorm rooms for every student who wants one, even with the reduced occupancy levels. But, as the policy is currently written, it appears some students still would be left out.

According to an undated memo from Haskell’s Student Residential Housing Program, only four categories of students will be allowed to apply for student housing in the fall: first-year students; transfer students who are attending Haskell for the first time; seniors who are scheduled to graduate in the fall or spring semester of this academic year; and student-athletes.

That creates questions about where sophomores and juniors, for instance, would live while attending Haskell.

Finch said she understood the need to take precautions related to the COVID virus, but she hopes Haskell leaders will consider amending the policy to allow a broader range of students to live in the dorms.

“It has been a bad year for lots and lots of students. A bad year and half,” Finch said. “We want to do right by them when they return.”

Both Finch and Wingo said their student centers were prepared to provide assistance ranging from food to counseling to help returning students this fall.

A spokeswoman for Haskell didn’t answer questions about the dormitory policy, but instead forwarded questions to the Bureau of Indian Education in Washington, D.C., which did not respond.

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World photo

Winona Hall, a student dormitory on Haskell Indian Nations University, is pictured on July 20, 2021.

In its memo, Haskell’s student housing division said the policy change “is necessary because of serious risk factors presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.” The memo noted a low nationwide vaccination rate, the ability of vaccinated people to still contract COVID and several other factors in explaining the policy change.

Yellowbird-Stevens said it is not uncommon for some Haskell students to live off campus in their second, third or fourth years at Haskell. But he said the policy as written could have a negative impact on some students who were planning to live in a dorm, especially given that the policy only came about in the last couple of weeks.

He said, though, that students shouldn’t give up on the idea of attending Haskell.

“I would say continue to apply because usually they sift through the application and people sometimes drop out and there is an opening available,” Yellowbird-Stevens said of housing availability. “Be ready to get up and move to Lawrence.

“I would ask people to remember that it is a time of change and uncertainty, and sometimes you just have to be ready to bob and weave and duck and dive.”

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