This article has been updated with additional figures.

ITHACA, N.Y. — If the administration at Cornell has their way, there will soon be more students in the city of gorges.

That was one of the takeaways from a presentation at the Tompkins County Housing Summit by Ryan Lombardi, Cornell’s Vice President for Student and Campus Life. According to Lombardi, Cornell offers guaranteed on-campus housing to all freshman and sophomore students. However, the guarantee is somewhat overstated – Cornell doesn’t actually have enough housing to guarantee space for all their underclassmen, and if too high a percentage were to try and stay on campus, the university would be unable to accommodate.

Lombardi identified three major problems with Cornell’s current housing situation. For one, the university has deferred major maintenance on several of its residence halls – Balch, Clara Dickson, and Risley Halls on its North Campus, and the Gothics on the West Campus. All of those dormitories were built from the 1900s through the 1940s, and are in need of major structural repairs and updates. While Cornell intended to do that in the 2000s, those plans were shelved as a result of the financial pressures of the Great Recession. Now, with some of its finances in order and a critical need to launch into those structural overhauls, Cornell is moving forward with those plans once again.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the kind of work that can be done in just a few months by a work crew. Many of the buildings’ mechanical systems need to be replaced, and the time frame for that is longer than the academic intersession. Cornell needs to build more housing capacity to place students into while that work is underway. Given that needs, Lombardi explained that it’s a top priority at Cornell to construct a 450-500 person “swing space” to house students who would have otherwise lived in the dorms taken out of circulation.

cornell housing occupancy_1
Graph courtesy of Cornell Campus Life

Secondly, Cornell would like to expand the proportion of students they have living on campus, particularly sophomores. 46% of undergraduate students live on campus, 48% if you count off-campus Greek houses and co-ops. That’s about 6,900 beds, for 14,300 students.

Virtually all freshmen live on campus; the one exception is if they live locally and are granted permission by the university to commute in. However, only 59% of sophomores live on campus. Cornell plans to increase that number about 15%. The university is less concerned with additional housing for juniors and seniors.

Lastly, Cornell plans on increasing its overall undergraduate enrollment. As recorded in a recent article by the Cornell Daily Sun, Cornell Provost Michael Kotlikoff stated that the plan is to increase freshman enrollment by 250-275 students, from the current target enrollment of 3,250. Cornell wants to provide capacity for that enrollment growth without exacerbating the current housing strains. Cornell’s incremental growth in recent years has been unplanned, but now the university would like to stick with established targets. “(The administration) hasn’t been strategic recently, but the Provost wants to be strategic about it now,” said Lombardi.

In the Sun article, Kotlikoff also noted that the increase in enrollment is so that the university can afford to build the new housing, swing space and all – the new dorms would be paid for by tuition revenue. An increase in enrollment would likely drop Cornell’s national ranking among colleges, something that, if the Daily Sun’s comment section is any indicator, is likely to create a lot of acrimony among prestige-conscious students and alumni.

Image courtesy of Cornell Campus Life

The result of all these factors is a plan to add 1,250 campus beds and a new dining hall to Cornell’s North Campus, ready for occupancy by Fall 2020. In a clarification email received after this article’s initial publication, Cornell staff indicated that there is a range of new capacity under consideration, from 850 to 2,000 new campus beds, depending on cost and market conditions. Ultimately, Cornell would like to establish North Campus as not just the epicenter for freshman housing, but sophomore housing as well – at the summit, a slide was shown with a conceptual site plan for the built-out north campus, a “freshman village” and a “sophomore village”.

Some of the dorms were new, and others like the freshman townhouses would be re-appropriated to sophomore housing (the reason given by Lombardi was that the isolated living arrangement of the townhouses wasn’t conducive to the freshman experience). A request to Cornell for a copy of the presentation by Lombardi was met with all the PowerPoint slides, except the one with the villages concept.


So what this all mean for Ithaca? Good question, and it will depend on the number of beds built and the increase in enrollment. Cornell has stated its goal isn’t to worsen the off-campus housing situation. A net gain of undergraduate 1,000-1,100 students, and 1,250 new beds, leaves a modest overall increase in Cornell’s housing capacity of 150-250 beds. Plus, local graduate and professional enrollment has continued to climb, by almost a thousand students since 2006.

If these trends continue, Ithacans can expect to see more dorms going up at Cornell, but the effect on the local off-campus housing market may be limited. The impact will be minor if graduate and professional enrollment levels off, or the market may get even tighter if overall enrollment exceeds the number of new beds created.

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at