An HBCU faced with surging enrollment in booming Nashville gets creative to house students

Fisk University, a Historically Black University in North Nashville, has seen a surge in admissions over the past four years. The school's aging set of housing facilities will not sustain the growing student population. The cost-effective yet unorthodox solution: dorms built out of shipping containers.
Fisk University, a Historically Black University in North Nashville, has seen a surge in admissions over the past four years. The school's aging set of housing facilities will not sustain the growing student population. The cost-effective yet unorthodox solution: dorms built out of shipping containers.

When Fisk University faced closure during Reconstruction, constricted by crumbling Union Army barracks and a swelling enrollment, the Jubilee Singers raised $50,000 on an international tour.

The funds built Jubilee Hall, a Victorian Gothic building that flaunted a towering steeple and a magnificent, hand-carved staircase.

Nearly a century and a half later, freshman women live in Jubilee Hall — one of four residence halls on campus. And Fisk, a historically Black college in Nashville, is once again finding creative ways to serve an influx of students.

The university plans to construct shipping-container-style dorm rooms in time for the fall 2023 semester, an initiative that officials hope will relieve pressure on decades-old traditional dorms, while creating additional on-campus housing in an expensive renters market.

Aesthetically, the units, which will feature eye-catching blue-and-yellow painted exteriors and kitchenettes and private bathrooms with walk-in showers inside, are a far cry from the neo-Gothic buildings dotting the historic campus. But as Fisk awaits construction of a new 300-bed, $20 million traditional dorm, the shipping-container dorms will satisfy an immediate need for affordable student housing.

"Of course it's innovative and edgy and enterprising and forward-thinking," Jens Frederiksen, Fisk’s executive vice president, said of the project. "But it's also in part forged by necessity. We have rapid growth and relatively limited liquidity."

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A look inside the common area inside the Crosthwaite Dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.
A look inside the common area inside the Crosthwaite Dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.

Fisk nearly doubles enrollment in 6 years

In 2017, Fisk's total enrollment was 630 students. This fall, the school exceeded 1,050 students thanks to an incoming class of just under 400 freshmen.

About 800 students currently live on campus, approximately 80% of Fisk’s enrollment.

The university secured funding to build a traditional-style dorm through a federal Historically Black Colleges and Universities loan program. But the structure will take time to build, officials said, and students need housing now.

Construction of one of the student housing buildings at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.
Construction of one of the student housing buildings at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.

Construction will start with 24 shipping containers sent from a warehouse in Missouri to be installed on the north Nashville campus. The new residential community, in its final form, will house 98 students.

The container dorms will cost approximately $4 million.

Fisk officials believe the university may be the first in America to experiment with shipping containers as a student housing solution. In recent years, the containers have become a low-cost, prefabricated option for a growing number of housing units and businesses.

If the project is successful, Fisk officials may order additional shipping container dorms.

In comparison, Belmont University's new student housing project is projected to cost $98 million. Nearby, Vanderbilt University is wrapping up construction on a $55 million expansion to its business school.

Unlike Belmont and Vanderbilt, Fisk's small size uniquely positions it to take advantage of alternative student housing proposals, said Murat Arik, the director of the Business and Economic Research Center at Middle Tennessee State University. Where zoning and land cost in an increasingly expensive city may be prohibitive to other universities, Arik added, Fisk's small plot of unused tennis courts make the project ideal.

Fisk's plan is part of a long-term strategy to improve enrollment and update facilities while remaining fiscally responsible and attracting large donations — initiatives the university hasn't enjoyed for decades.

"We're forced to operate a sustainable small business that is in the area of changing lives, changing futures, and we're forced to do it on a razor's edge," Frederiksen said.

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Construction of one of the student housing buildings at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.
Construction of one of the student housing buildings at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.

So far, enrollment growth, student performance and an increase in donations have shown signs of success. Test scores for the incoming classes improved from the 54th to the 71st percentile in terms of national test averages.

Meanwhile, Forbes ranked Fisk No. 1 in the nation in academic stewardship, a new measure that rewards schools with high student success rates based on factors such as school size and endowment spend out. Fisk is the lone Tennessee university to make the list.

Frederiksen views that score as a sign the university is making every dollar count. More than 58% of incoming Fisk students are Pell grant eligible, and many are first-generation college students. These factors can make private school tuition a daunting financial proposition.

Students increasingly look for modern amenities

Despite raising more than $70 million in donations over the last six years, no donors have stepped up to fund big ticket items such as student housing, Frederiksen said. The single largest donation in the school's history was $2.5 million, and many contributions are earmarked for items such as student scholarships and deferred maintenance.

College students increasingly expect dorms to include living-learning community amenities such as kitchens, study rooms and social spaces.

Fisk has three dorms built in the 1960s and 1970s that do not offer these perks, and they are aging more every year. The newest, Shane Hall, was built in 1972. Yet Jubilee Hall's charm explains why Fisk has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on continued restoration and maintenance.

The common area inside the Jubilee Hall dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.
The common area inside the Jubilee Hall dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.

"Part of living in Jubilee Hall is the legacy of it," Frederiksen said. "That’s different from a 1960s dorm that’s just old."

In recent years, university officials, including the board of trustees, began to explore temporary housing options that could come online quickly without a hefty price tag.

Frederiksen said the shipping-container dorm plan has received positive feedback in recent town hall discussions with the student body. He has also conducted hundreds of one-on-one meetings with students — the goal is to meet with every Fisk student — to discuss resident life, academics and professional development.

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Robert Wagoner, the owner of Custom Container Living, said working with shipping containers is kind of like playing with adult Legos.

The possibilities are many, but the building blocks are simple.

Fisk's dorm project, like others designed and built by Wagoner's team, will be prefabricated in Kansas City, Missouri, using shipping containers that have only made one trip across the ocean. The steel structures are durable and long-lasting, he said, and designed to withstand years of wear and tear.

When the local site is ready with electrical, water and sewer hookups, the dorms will be shipped for installation.

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New dorms on the Fisk University campus are projected to be completed in time for the fall 2023 semester.
New dorms on the Fisk University campus are projected to be completed in time for the fall 2023 semester.

Keeping the manufacturing under one roof tightens costs and construction timelines, Wagoner said. The dorms will be built and available for use in less than one year, significantly faster than traditional construction.

Wagoner has been looking forward to seeing his design come to fruition for years on the Fisk campus.

"I'm the type of guy where money doesn't drive me," said Wagoner, who has worked with shipping containers for eight years. He previously worked in traditional contracting. "Helping people out and filling the need they have is what excites me."

While shipping-container construction has not been utilized for student housing in the past, there is an example in Nashville of multifamily developments using containers as building materials. 83 Freight, located in the post-industrial Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood, is a three-story structure with 83 units. Floor plans include studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom options.

83 Freight was built onsite, which is more costly and time-consuming than the pre-fab model utilized by Wagoner's team. Pre-fab housing has grown in popularity in response to supply chain issues and rising building costs. A factory-made condominium complex with 82 units opened in Nashville in July 2018, marking the first of its kind in the city.

A look inside the common area inside Mary D. Shane dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.
A look inside the common area inside Mary D. Shane dormitory at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2022.

Alumna: Improved on-campus housing will help attract students

When Crystal deGregory was recruited by Fisk as a 16-year-old international student, her adviser had to beg her mother to let her stay.

If she flunked out of first semester, the adviser said, he would personally drive her to the airport.

Four years later, she graduated.

Years later, deGregory, a native of the Bahamas, said she hopes Fisk maintains its recent momentum. The institution's goal is to increase student enrollment to 1,600-1,800 in the next four years.

To accomplish this, the students will likely need somewhere to live on campus. And Fisk will likely face growing competition to earn their commitment.

Fisk has a growing population of students who, in deGregory's words, could go anywhere for college. They have the financial means to choose between a variety of higher education options, but they are interested in Fisk because of its Black college experience.

Competing for those students means offering campus amenities: new dorms, dining halls and updated classrooms. But all of that needs to occur in a cost-effective way, making the shipping-container dorms an innovation forged out of necessity.

While deGregory wants to see her alma mater win — and receieve recognition for those wins — she knows the work doesn't end when the spotlight shines.

"Even when the headlines don't read it, they are still doing really good work," she said. "It's the work that really matters."

Molly Davis covers growth and development at The Tennessean, part of the USA Today Network. Reach Molly at mdavis2@tennessean.com. Kirsten Fiscus covers breaking news for The Tennessean. She can be reached at KFiscus@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter @KDFiscus.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fisk University tries innovative solution to student housing shortage