The metal bunk beds are crammed together in a row with no more than two feet between them. Dressers are arrayed in an unbroken line along the wall near the door, and footlockers and clothes take up what little other space remains. It is standing room only.
The second full day of classes had just ended at the University of Maryland's College Park campus and the small room, normally used as a study area, was busy with activity as its temporary occupants readied themselves to go to the dining hall for supper. One woman dashed to the bathroom to take a shower, while another had returned and was reaching for a towel. A third roommate was brushing her hair. All of them were having a hard time keeping out of each others way.
Their room in Somerset Hall looks as if it might comfortably accommodate two persons, perhaps three. Instead, six students were squeezed into the room, hoping that, as other students drop out or decide not to show up at all, they will be allocated one of the precious few regular spaces in a campus dormitory.
There were at least 170 other students placed at about 20 different locations on the Maryland campus at the start of classes two weeks ago, trying to cope with similar makeshift living arrangements. University officials, refer to these units, appropriately, as "overflow" housing.
While the "overflow" usually disappears within three weeks from the start of classes, its very existence represents the most visible aspect of a problem that has plagued the College Park campus for years:
There are too many students who want to live on or near campus and not enough places to put them.
The "overflow" situation also illustrates what students who attend the university are willing to go through to secure a relatively inexpensive convenient dormitory room to stay in while going to school.
On this mammoth campus of 37,000 students, there are spaces in campus housing for only 8,000. And although this year there was an initial waiting list of 1,200 students who wanted to live in the dorms, campus authorities say there are no plans to build new dormitories.
The major reason for the decision not to build, they say, is that some of the older dormitories have deteriorated to such a serious extent that they must be renovated before the construction of new buildings can be considered. There simply is not enough money to renovate and build at the same time, officials say.
"I'm more concerned than ever in not investing in new buildngs," says Richard Stimpson, the housing director at the College Park campus. "We have a responsibility to those people living on campus now. We have to provide them with the best possible housing and now a couple of our buildings don't reach that intent."
Stimpson also points out that the Maryland Board of Higher Education has adopted one plan, and is considering additional proposals designed to cut enrollment at the College Park campus in an attempt to upgrade the academic standards there and help redistribute some students to the state's other colleges.
When those goals are realized, Stimpson said, there will be less of a demand for campus housing. But even with a drop in enrollment, the demand still will exceed the available housing supply, he agreed.
"I can't deny the advantages of living on campus. On-campus living is a tremendous experience. it's a very useful part of a student's education to be close to other students and to classes and to Tawes (the fine arts center) and to football. I can't brush aside that. But when the spaces are gone, they're gone and theres nothing we can do about it, no matter how much we might like to," Stimpson added.
Some of the students placed in overflow spaces at College Park said the university does very little for them.
"Nobody said anything to us. Nobody even checked on us to see what it's like in here," complained Julie Demick, a sophomore who transfered to College Park this fall and was placed in the overflow section of Somerset Hall. "We could be dead for all they (housing officials) know," added Megan Ward, a freshman also in Somerset overflow.
"The main problem is you can't get settled, you can't study, you have no privacy. We have no idea what's going to happen to us. The more studying we have to do, the worse it's going to get," Demick said.
Despite the apparent hardships, the students in overflow generally agree they are better off than those who were rejected outright and have virtually no hope of finding campus housing. These students, a group that includes many out-of-state freshmen who are not given special priority for dorm space, must undertake their own searches for lviing quarters.
The university in recent years has upgraded the services provided for the school's vast commuting population. A shuttle bus system now serves many area apartment complexes and the off-campus housing office keeps a computerized listing of room vacancies in the area.
To decide which students will receive campus housing, university officials have made a decision to group applicants into three categories. Given the highest priority are Maryland residents who live more than an hour away from campus by public transportation. Out-of-state students, including those from the District, have the next highest priority, while Maryland residents living within commuting distance of the university are the last to be considered.
Within each category, the students who mail their applications the earliest have the best chance of being housed on campus.
In addition to offering students some help in sorting out the housing maze, the university has in recent years upgraded the services provided for the school's vast commuting population.
The new services have helped, but for an 18-year-old unfamiliar with the area and with leasing procedures who is trying to adapt to the many other often trying aspects of college life, the hunt for housing can be a frustrating and discouraging undertaking.
In her search for housing, Carol Lawrence, a sophomore transfer student, was having just such an experience. Lawrence's sister and parents drove down from New York to help her look for a room.
Almost as soon as they arrived, the sister took up a post in front of the bulletin board outisde the office where she jostled for a good position among the crowd, hoping to spot a new listing as it was posted.
The parents braved 10- and 20-minute waiting lines inside the office to check the computer books and use the phones. Meanwhile, Carol Lawrence negotiated with a group of other students who had rented an apartment and were looking for a roommate.
After the talks broke down (they wanted a nonsmoker), Lawrence explained her situation. "Everything a private house and everything was settled. Then I went home to New York for vacation and later I found out the woman decided not to rent the room. I'm back here today looking for a place and I'm a smoker, and I don't have any furniture, and I'm having a very hard time."