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Today's dorm rooms may be a crowd scene

What most people expect when they move into their first college dorm: one, maybe two, roommates, a basic bedroom setup and a decent amount of privacy.

What Leah Lage got: five roommates, one huge, open room and a window into a public hallway.

Arrangements like Lage's are more common than you probably think. Although the Association of College and University Housing Officers (ACUHO) says nobody knows exactly how many schools and students are affected by overcrowding, they say the problem is fairly common.

It forces housing directors to shuffle excess students into a creative variety of alternative living situations - and students are left to cope with odd furniture arrangements, loss of what little privacy they may expect and more people with whom to argue about decor. But being young, they may not mind any of it.

Lage, now 21 and working as a sales assistant in Newark, Del., experienced not one, but two, of the most popular solutions. Her freshman year at New York's Quinipiac University was spent in a former study area that had been temporarily converted into a six-person super room.

The next year, she transferred to Emerson College in Boston, Mass., where her 'dorm' was a nearby Doubletree Hotel. Lage says that she enjoyed both experiences.

In fact, as a freshman, she and her five roommates bonded so well that they ended up requesting to stay together for the whole year, rather than being allowed to move out as other spaces became available.

As for her sophomore year, as Lage puts it, 'How could you not love living in a hotel? We had fresh-baked cookies every day, maid service twice a week, HBO and air conditioning.'

According to the U.S. Census Bureau and the National Science Foundation, the numbers of 18- to 24-year-olds fell steadily prior to the late 1990s, eventually dropping 23 percent from a 1980 high of 22 million.

But around the turn of the millennium that trend reversed.

Today, census experts expect that there will be more than 21 million college-age people by the year 2010. This means that after nearly two decades of enrollment stagnation or decline, schools have been faced with accommodating a resurgence in student numbers to 1980 levels - in half the time.

In areas with the biggest population increases, primarily southern and western states like Florida, Texas and California, the growth is even more difficult to manage.

'It's hard for construction to keep up,' says Connie Carson, president of the housing officers' association and executive director of residential services at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

That problem can be further complicated when schools see unexpected spikes in enrollment, often caused by something as simple as winning a national sports championship.

So, what to do?

When faced with overcrowding, most schools set up temporary accommodations by converting study spaces and renting out hotels but also by reconfiguring regular two-person rooms to hold three; by putting up students with resident assistants or housing staff, who usually get a private room; or hauling in mobile-home trailers.

It's not a free-for-all, however. Schools usually have advance plans for how student overflow will be dealt with. Sometimes, campus buildings are even planned out to be easily switched between residential and other uses.

Adam Bartlett, now a 23-year-old computer programmer in Little Rock, Ark., was a resident assistant at Arkansas Tech University. When he was a freshman, his school was faced with major overcrowding, a problem that was largely solved by the time he graduated - thanks in part to some of the campus' academic buildings having been converted into additional dorms.

'They had actually been housing buildings originally,' he says. 'So it was pretty simple for them to just be switched back.'

The school also is opening a new dormitory this fall.

While these one-of-kind, improvised living arrangements are certainly useful and necessary, it's easy to imagine they might not make for the best college experience. But there's evidence to the contrary.

'In most cases, if they know that they're going to be in that space for a year, students are OK with it,' says Norb Dunkel, vice president of the ACUHO and director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida.

Where problems arise with temporary accommodations, it's usually because the school didn't put in the extra work necessary: communicating early and often with parents and students before they arrived on campus; arranging things so students didn't have to worry about frequent moves during the school year; and making sure overflow students still felt a sense of community among themselves and a sense of connectedness to the campus as a whole.