While shipping container dormitories have been adopted as a solution to student accommodation shortages in countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Scotland, and South Africa for more than a decade, the ongoing student housing crisis in the U.S. has forced two higher education institutions to turn to shipping containers as a quick-fix solution to growing pressure to provide affordable, secure housing for students.

The College of Idaho was the first U.S. higher education institution to utilize shipping containers as dorms when it converted 36 shipping containers into two three-storey student accommodation buildings in 2020. Now, Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, is believed to be just the second U.S. higher education institution to convert shipping containers into student housing. The university is currently converting dozens of shipping containers into dorms which will each have private bathrooms, kitchenettes, and showers, and house 98 students at the cost of $4 million.

Like many other Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), a type of university founded to give Black students an opportunity for higher education when most colleges were segregated, Fisk University has been struggling to accommodate students amidst growing enrolment numbers after years of decline and run-down on-campus housing stock.

Student accommodation is a particular concern for HBCUs where students often face high levels of housing and food insecurity. A 2020 survey of nearly 5,000 surveyed students at HBCUs found that nearly 50% had reported food insecurity in the month prior to the survey, 55% said they struggled to maintain safe, affordable and consistent housing — and 20% said they had experienced homelessness in the previous 12 months.

Fisk University Executive Vice President Jens Frederiksen told NBC News that the majority of students, consulted via town halls and surveys during planning for the project, were supportive of the proposed plan: “We went to the student body, we did town halls, we did some surveys, and the response was incredible. They all wanted to live in these shipping containers,” Frederiksen said.

The shipping container dorms, which will be ready for students for move-in by fall 2023, are a rapid and cost-effective solution for Fisk University which has also received funding for construction of a traditional hall of residence. However, this new hall of residence will not be completed until 2024 at the earliest.

Given pushback from students over housing solutions such as temporary accommodation in hotels, and growing levels of student housing and food insecurity, it’s not surprising that U.S. institutions are looking for creative solutions. But are shipping containers, like prison ships, a smart up-cycling solution to meeting unpredictable demand surges, or a symptom of poor planning and the inability of the sector to provide long-term solutions to student housing demand?