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Boston prods NU on student numbers

Councilor, BRA cite 15,000 limit

By Casey Ross
Globe Staff / January 11, 2010

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Renewing a long-simmering dispute, Boston officials are accusing Northeastern University of reneging on commitments to limit its undergraduate enrollment to 15,000 and move more students out of city neighborhoods.

In a letter to the Boston Redevelopment Authority Friday, Michael Ross, president of the Boston City Council, cited Northeastern figures showing that enrollment now stands at 15,585, with 7,800 of those students, or 50 percent, living in off-campus housing.

Northeastern previously pledged to curb its enrollment to help ease an overall housing crunch that contributes to the high cost of rental units in Boston, which consistently ranks among the most expensive places to live in the country. Ross said the 585 extra students have a significant impact on dense neighborhoods like Mission Hill, where their presence creates inevitable conflicts over property upkeep and noise and reduces the availability of affordable apartments.

“They’re taking an already difficult rental market and making it worse,’’ said Ross, who is asking the BRA to force the university to reduce enrollment and accept fewer students next year. “They have to ac knowledge this is a destabilizing factor in the city.’’

Northeastern officials denied they are reneging on their commitments, saying the university pledged in city planning documents to limit its enrollment to “approximately 15,000 students’’ and that its current student population is within an acceptable range.

They also said the current enrollment number is not the result of the university ignoring the 15,000 limit and simply accepting 585 more students. Rather, it is at least partially due to an increasing graduation rate, with 75 percent of freshmen students staying through to graduation, compared with 64 percent in 2006. And Northeastern is housing more students on campus than at any time in its history, according to a university spokesman.

“Northeastern has a strong track record of working with the community and the mayor on these issues, and that will continue,’’ said the spokesman, Michael Armini.

BRA director John Palmieri said Ross’s letter prompted him to contact the university Friday and ask for more concerted efforts to reduce the number of students living in city neighborhoods.

Palmieri stopped short of calling for specific enrollment reductions, but said the city intends to pursue the issue when Northeastern seeks to renew its master plan with Boston this year. The master plan establishes parameters for university expansion, development, and other issues, and it is the primary mechanism for making universities comply with enrollment limits.

“We expect them to adhere to the goals they set,’’ Palmieri said of Northeastern. “They have done a good job trying to behave as a good neighbor, but we have to address these issues as we move forward.’’

The shortage of dormitory housing for Boston’s college students is not limited to Northeastern, but the university has found itself embroiled in some high-profile disputes.

In 2000, a computer error caused the university to accept 600 more students than it was expecting, leaving officials scrambling to find housing for them. Many of the students ended up living in Mission Hill and Fenway neighborhoods.

In the following years, the university pledged to build more dormitories and dramatically reduce the number of students living in city neighborhoods. But Ross said those efforts have been only marginally effective.

This year, for example, the university opened a new 1,200-student dormitory in Mission Hill, yet the number of students living in neighborhood apartments has dropped by only 78, according to Ross.

Northeastern lags behind most Boston universities in terms of the percentage of students living on campus. While Northeastern houses 50 percent of its students, Boston University houses 80 percent and Boston College 82 percent. Emerson College is also on the higher end of the range. However, Suffolk University has the most severe housing shortage, with only about 30 percent of its students living in dorms, according to BRA officials.

Officials with Northeastern said its housing numbers are skewed by changes in the way it manages its properties. At the request of neighborhood residents, the university has turned over some apartment buildings to private control. That has caused many students once counted as living in Northeastern housing to now be counted as living off campus, according to Armini, the university spokesman.

Armini said the university also has been forced to temporarily shelve plans to build a 600-unit dormitory due to the recession, which has stressed finances of colleges across the country.

“It’s just a very difficult economic climate right now,’’ he said.

Casey Ross can be reached at cross@globe.com.