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College Students Weigh Options on Where to Live This Semester

The pandemic has presented some difficult choices for both students and school officials to keep everyone safe

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It's a tricky semester for college housing.

Some university and college classes are set to start in mid-August. Students have already made crucial decisions about staying online this semester or taking some classes in person.

That leads them to another big decision: Where do they feel safe to live?

According to a report by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking more than 1,000 campus reopening plans, 61 percent of colleges plan to return to an in-person semester, only 8 percent have decided to continue all-remote learning, and 22 percent will offer a mix. Earlier in July, the remaining 9 percent of campuses were still considering a range of options.

Many of the colleges and universities in North Texas that planning to reopen have said they will still offer all-remote classes to students hoping to do distance learning, in addition to those in-person classes.

The choice is theirs: Stay at home, move to a dorm or move into an apartment?

"I think it's really interesting that this topic can often come down to just debate between whether it's the university's responsibility or the student as the decision maker's responsibility for whether or not they want to room with other people,” said Aaron Dutka, a sophomore at Texas A&M. "On one hand, the university has to manage all of the on-campus leases. But on the other hand, they want to ensure the student's safety. I think so far, where we've seen these two meet at the middle."

He’s one of several college-bound students from North Texas we spoke to who are heading to different parts of the country. In a virtual conversation with NBC 5, they shared their choices on where they plan to live this fall semester.

"I'm in a little bit of a sticky situation. I'm technically on campus but I'm staying in my fraternity house,” said Christian Heideman, an upcoming sophomore at the University of Alabama. "I do pay the lease and it's guaranteed now. But if I'm not allowed back on campus, I still have to pay the lease."

Many students are still pining for that traditional college experience.

"As a freshman, everyone says the dorm is like a super important part of going to college,” Ashleigh Rose, a recent high school graduate entering her freshman year at UT Austin. "I think it's important to recognize your personal choice. It is important to communicate with your roommates and just understand that college is an important milestone."

And while weighing the options, students said it has been a stressful summer of planning.

"It's really interesting. I don't really know what's going to happen,” said Patrick Unnikrishnan, a sophomore at Boston College. "They don't have enough space to give people single occupancy, unfortunately. So I'm still going to be in a suite-style."

For those staying in a dorm-like Ohio State sophomore Madison Doran, be prepared for restrictions on visitors, movement and interactions with neighbors.

"Ohio State actually has a two-year on-campus living requirement for the students,” she said.

She said her dorms are even installing air filters.

"One for each person in the room to keep the air as clean as possible,” she said.

Many campuses are trying to make housing less dense, meaning only one roommate at most.

"They're basically talking about instead of doing four, they're just going to do two people. So you're across the room from each other, you're not sharing a bathroom or personal space,” said Heideman.

Apartments can offer more peace of mind but are locked with leases and can be expensive without roommates.

That's why students are keeping that option in their back pocket if there's a sudden closure on campus.

"If they end up having to close the dorms, I'm pretty sure my roommates and I are going to get an apartment near campus,” said Doran. “We're planning to stick together.”

"Be prepared for contingencies. And just communicating with not only your roommates but your parents at home,” said Austin Nguyen, an upcoming Texas A&M freshman.

"If you're on the same page as your roommate on what kind of activities you go out and do, how you interact with the rest of the world or wearing masks -- if you decide to go back, you will have a better handle to the best of your ability to control the spread,” added Dutka.

The question of paying for a full semester is another factor, as universities and colleges make plans to cut classes and programs short this semester to prevent the spread or prepare for another wave of cases. Access to amenities on campuses has also been restricted.

“If we have reduced access to dorms, recreation centers and clubs, it makes no sense to pay full tuition for a limited college experience, let alone remote learning," Natasha Bacchus, a senior at American University, told NBC News. “What am I actually paying for?”

Calls for tuition cuts are growing louder across the country, with petitions and lawsuits demanding reduced tuition and housing.

According to NBC News, some private colleges with more resources have offered tuition reductions. Others have announced tuition rollbacks, freezes or deferred payments. However, experts say it's not simple, as schools cannot afford to lose the revenue.

Either way, students said it will be a difficult year for everyone.

"I feel like it's kind of nuanced and difficult. And the decision is kind of difficult for everyone to figure out,” said Dutka. "I think because we as students can't control what the university does, we can only control what we ourselves do.”

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