When now-sophomore Kate Lim applied to Northeastern University, she opted into the school’s global experiences programs, which include Mills College at Northeastern University — the university’s Oakland, Calif., campus — and semester-long programs in London, Glasgow, and Berlin.
Though she’d hoped to start her freshman year at Northeastern’s Boston campus, Lim shed her expectations of a “traditional college experience” and spent fall semester in Oakland.
When she arrived in Boston in the spring, Lim did not experience the return to — or rather, the beginning of — normalcy she’d hoped for. Instead, she found herself living in a hotel room rented by the university to house students at a Sheraton in the Back Bay, feeling a semester behind her first-year peers.
“It’s kind of hard to connect when everyone’s past the whole welcome bit,” Lim said in an interview as the school year began this September. “Freshmen who should be on the same level as you are already ahead. You fall short unless you’ve been working overtime.”
Northeastern touts global experiential learning opportunities like semester-long co-ops, N.U.in — a semester-long program where freshmen spend their first semester abroad — and global scholars programs where freshmen divide their first Northeastern year between Oakland and London.
While these programs are a major part of Northeastern’s educational experience, some students say they complicate the transition to college life and strain a Boston campus without extra space.
“The sentiment of a lot of students is that Northeastern over-enrolls and it doesn’t have the capacity on the Boston campus,” said Emily Spatz, a sophomore at the university. “Those kids have to come back eventually. ... I don’t know if [Northeastern] is ready for that influx of students.”
Satyajit Dattagupta, the head of enrollment and admissions at Northeastern, said the university has seen a significant spike in interest over the past decade. Over 96,000 applications were submitted last year — about a 94 percent increase in the last decade, according to Dattagupta.
While managing the level of interest can be challenging, Dattagupta said it is not a task his team takes lightly.
“It’s on us to ensure that [students’] quality of experience is in no way diminished,” he said. “The admissions numbers were [calculated] taking housing, quality of life, classroom capacity, support, into consideration.”
This fall, the university welcomed 2,750 first-year students to its Boston campus, admitted 1,200 students to its global scholars program, and 1,560 students to N.U.in, Dattagupta said. An additional 490 students will begin their time at Northeastern in Oakland and have the option to transition to Boston after the first year.
That’s where things get complicated. The selling point for many higher education institutions in Boston — an urban location at the heart of the action — can be a drawback for growing student bodies on campuses without space to sprawl.
Universities across the country face similar housing shortages. Last year, the University of Massachusetts Amherst housed 120 transfer students in a motel over three miles from the school. At the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, the administration offered financial compensation to local alumni who volunteered to house students. This year, Vermont’s Middlebury College announced a $10,000 pay-to-delay proposal, incentivizing upperclassmen to delay their education and free up space on campus.
In Boston, Northeastern has 10,000 on-campus beds and guarantees housing for first-year students, according to a spokesperson for the university. Last fall, the university’s undergraduate enrollment totaled 16,302 students, according to US News and World Report. Northeastern students told the Globe they feel the effects of overcrowding: Some said they are crammed in three-person dorms, while others complained of crowded gyms, dining halls, and study spaces.
Lim, who now lives in an apartment-style dorm on campus, has a bottom bunk in a three-person room the same size as the room her suitemates have for two people.
“I’m not sure if the triple is supposed to be a double, but it does feel very small,” Lim said. “My roommates are in the top bunks and they can’t even put their ladders out at the same time.”
Madeleine Estabrook, Northeastern’s senior vice chancellor for student life, said every room on campus is sized according to code. While old buildings mean very few rooms are identical, a room’s square footage determines its capacity, meaning there could be larger singles or smaller doubles, Estabrook said.
The challenge of space is not left unaddressed. Estabrook said Northeastern has added roughly 3,000 beds in the past 15 years and proposed a 1,300-bed residence hall on a campus-owned lot. Recently, Northeastern began transforming a 428-room space in the Sheraton into permanent dorms, a student lounge, a dining area, and other amenities.
Still, due to experiential learning programs like co-ops, it’s not uncommon for Northeastern students to graduate in four-and-a-half or five years, putting pressure on university housing and sometimes landing students in less-than-optimal housing situations.
Aleeza Syed, a Northeastern third-year, lived in the Sheraton for her first year of college, from 2021 to 2022. While she did not experience the midyear shock of moving across the country, Syed said living farther from campus made Northeastern take longer to feel like home than she’d hoped.
“Having a campus is an integral part of being a college student because you’re surrounded by people you go to school with,” Syed said. “It doesn’t feel that way when you’re living in a place that’s housing mostly visitors and barely any other students.”
Spatz, on the other hand, spent her first semester as a Northeastern student in Oakland. When she returned, she and many of her peers lived in the Sheraton. Though it’s classified as on campus, the hotel is the farthest from campus of any residence hall: a 15-minute walk from dining halls, class buildings, and other student residences.
While Spatz, a Nashville native, had a semester of college under her belt, she was new to Boston and living relatively far from school. She described the experience as isolating and difficult; she missed out on first-year orientation activities that happened in the fall and struggled to enter an already-formed social scene.
“Last year was really hard for me. The whole transition to college and having to live in two different places across the country was overwhelming,” Spatz said.
Estabrook said these life changes are part of the university’s commitment to experiential learning.
“We’re very intentional about building more transitions, both making sure that your commitment to your cohort is a basis for your community in Boston but also making sure there’s programming to help you find your affinity to the things in Boston once you get to Boston.”
But, some students say impact matters more than intent.
“People make it work because they want to go to the school for its name, but it’s difficult when you come back,” Syed said. “It’s like starting over again all within a year.”