Housing studies major hits pause

The CDES major program is discontinuing temporarily so faculty can re-evaluate it.

Vanessa Nyarko

The University of Minnesota’s College of Design will put its decades-old housing studies major on pause starting next year.

College administrators decided to temporarily stop admitting new students to the program after fall semester 2014, citing low enrollment. Still, some faculty members and students are at odds with the decision.

“We’ve vested our lives in this curriculum with our students, so it’s disappointing because it is a good major,” said housing studies professor and program director Becky Yust.

CDES Dean Tom Fisher made the call in November to stop new students from enrolling in the major, with the intention of allowing faculty members to modify coursework to focus more on community development than on traditional classroom work.

“My hope is not to close it, but to relaunch it in a new way,” he said.

The housing studies minor and graduate-level program will remain intact, and students currently in the major will be able to complete their degree.

The program includes courses related to all areas of housing. Students specialize in one of five areas: community development and policy, housing technology, management and finance, selected populations or sustainability.

The major has never had high enrollment, Yust said. Housing studies had 17 students this semester, only one of whom is a freshman.

Fisher said CDES administrators were puzzled that a major focused on housing — a basic human need — was struggling to attract students.

Now, Yust said she wants to increase the major’s visibility on campus and make it easier for students to understand what the curriculum entails.

But student feedback showed there wasn’t a problem with the major’s quality, placement and curriculum, Yust said, and she doesn’t understand exactly what changes will be required for the major to be relaunched.

Faculty members’ strategies to boost enrollment haven’t been successful so far, Fisher said, so they must “rethink, repackage and relaunch” the major.

The housing studies faculty consists of five tenured professors, Yust said, so all will be able to continue teaching minor and graduate courses after the major is paused.

Low enrollment, high benefit

Enrollment in housing studies began slipping when its old home, the College of Human Ecology, disbanded in 2006 and the major moved to CDES.

Yust said the design college may be considered an odd fit for the major, leading some students to overlook it. But for other students, the major is unique and beneficial to their career path.

While sitting in Espresso Exposé last Wednesday, housing studies sophomore Trevor Mercil analyzed and explained different University-area housing developments.

Mercil grew up learning about housing development and management from family members, which led him to the major.

“Every college has architecture, every college has civil engineering, every college has the basics, but the U has something called housing studies, which a lot of people don’t know,” he said.

Housing studies has social science roots and is a broad, interdisciplinary major that encompasses classes from other majors, Yust said.

Karly Howg, the only housing studies freshman this year, said she came to the University wanting to focus on architecture.

But after attending a housing studies event, she realized she wanted to work on increasing affordable housing rather than designing and building structures, she said.

Cheryl Steeves graduated with a housing studies degree in 1997 and landed a job with a local government office after graduation.

She left that job to work at a nonprofit women’s shelter because, she said, she wanted to get involved with the human and community aspects of housing.

When Steeves was in the major during the 1990s, she said, housing studies was already under the radar — so she understands why it’s now being put on hold.

“I think it’s unfortunate,” she said, “but it makes sense since they had to make some decision about it.”