UC San Diego ends up with 5,000 fewer dorm students than projected, primarily because of coronavirus

Students move their belongings into dormitories at UCSD on Saturday, Sept. 19.
Students move their belongings into dormitories at UCSD on Saturday, Sept. 19.
(Sandy Huffaker / San Diego Union-Tribune)

UC San Diego has 9,655 students living in campus housing this fall, a figure that’s nearly 5,000 less than the campus has been projecting since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university also disclosed last week that it expects to lose about $200 million for 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. The school had been saying the losses would range from $350 million to $450 million.

The huge cut in student housing represents a largely unpublicized effort to staunch the spread of the virus. Campus housing executives weren’t available for comment, said Leslie Sepuka, a spokeswoman.

UC San Diego began fall 2019 with 15,500 students living on campus, a figure that was expected to rise to 17,600 this year as new housing came online.


When the pandemic began to hit hard this spring, the university adjusted its estimates to 14,500 students who would be were living in campus housing in the fall.

UC San Diego told the Union-Tribune in mid-August that it was standing by that estimate. But the campus was actually moving to reduce the number of dorm students due to health safety guidance from the state, according to an email Sepuka sent last week to the U-T.

By early September, UC San Diego shifted, saying it would have about 11,000 undergraduate and graduate students in housing this fall. The number reflected further efforts to “de-densify” dorms in hopes of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

The dorm population was 9,655 on Oct. 1, the university says.

UC San Diego also has said its COVID-19 financial losses could total as much as $450 million, with nearly half of the costs affecting the UC San Diego Health system.

Sepuka said last week that the campus expects to have $140 million in unexpected costs in 2020 and 2021, and that the health system would take a $60-million hit in 2020. The total: $200 million.

“The earlier high-level estimates are no longer accurate because they were exactly that: estimates based on the best assumptions at the time,” Sepuka said in email Thursday.


UC San Diego Health originally expected to lose $200 million alone. The estimate fell to $100 million, then to $60 million after the university received some government support.

“We have very good financial people. But this was a difficult situation, which made it hard to make estimates,” said Dr. David Brenner, vice chancellor for health sciences. “This is the first time we’ve ever had an estimate that was this far off.”

The university has fared much better in forecasting COVID-19 infections. The school said in August that it expected 20 to 40 students in campus housing this fall would get infected the virus. So far, the number of positive tests has been in that range.

The university is trying to prevent an outbreak by regularly testing students for COVID-19, and examining the wastewater from school buildings for signs of the virus. UC San Diego has shown that it can use such monitoring to identify and locate people who have contracted COVID-19.

The university also offers a cellphone-based app that notifies people if they’ve come into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.

Robbins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.