Who would have thought that they'd be beating down the door to live in downtown Newark?" asks Steven Diner, provost of Rutgers University's Newark campus. "But they are."
Traditionally a commuter campus, Rutgers' 10,500-student Newark, NJ, branch is now regularly inundated with requests for its 650 on-campus beds. Diner says that in the past few years, on-campus housing has become so popular that administrators are even getting requests for special favors from politicians--once even a U.S. Senate staffer--to find on-campus space for particular students. To help meet the demand, the school is renting space for 25 students from the nearby New Jersey Institute of Technology--80 rooms from a hotel three blocks away--and Diner says he eventually hopes to accommodate around 3,000 Rutgers students.
Next year, Diner hopes to rent 150 rooms from the hotel. And on the agenda after that: a $51 million, 600-bed residence opening in 2006 that the university is building with Devco, the New Brunswick Development Authority (New Brunswick is the home of Rutgers' largest campus), financed through revenue bonds. A few years after that, Rutgers administrators hope to add another 700 beds for graduate students as well, perhaps through a partnership with a private developer.
Rutgers is not alone. Robert Bronstein, the president of The Scion Group (www.thesciongroup.com), a Chicago real estate consultancy that works with Rutgers, says that a number of other urban satellite campuses, including the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee and University of Illinois at Chicago, are experiencing the same demand for on-campus housing. "What's happening in those and other cases is that the urban campus is growing like crazy and they're taking their housing and doubling, tripling, and quadrupling it. It's something we're seeing all over the place, not just at the public schools but in general," he says.
Even in Newark, Rutgers has company in the race for more space. The New Jersey Institute of Technology opened a new 300-resident dorm last year, and now has 1,400 students on its campus--about half the student body. The University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey is also studying ways to create more local housing for its Newark students.
The odds that Newark's colleges and universities would ever offer housing, let alone generate enough demand to fill those beds, seemed quite long just a few years back. Over the past 50 years, the once-thriving industrial town lost its way, as manufacturing moved away and nothing moved in to take its place. The city shrunk to 240,000 people, nearly half its former size, even as the surrounding suburbs grew increasingly prosperous. To make matters even worse, the city suffered one of the worst race riots of the 1960s--a four-day melee in 1967 that left 26 people dead and more than 1,000 injured.
Another historical factor that might make it seem even more unlikely that student housing would ever be built: Town-gown relations have a history of tension. One historian has even written that a prime motive for the 1967 rage was a proposal to level dozens of acres in the predominately black Central Ward to build the medical school that's become the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey.
"It wasn't always the love fest we've got going on now," says George Hampton, UMDNJ vice president for Urban and Community Development. "It ain't a love fest now either, but it's better than it's ever been."
The political fortunes of Newark's schools have changed somewhat, as they have for many urban commuter colleges across the country. Historically, such institutions were often discouraged from growing beyond their original bounds. "There was a general belief that commuter schools should be only commuter schools--there should be no housing--and that expansion was not part of the picture," says Daniel Paulien, a Denver-based facilities planning consultant.
Today, Newark city planners are looking at the local schools not as a drain on the tax rolls but an asset--a major employer that brings income and shoppers downtown. Newark's city business administrator, Richard Monteilh, actually includes Rutgers and the city's other higher educational institutions in a monthly meeting of Newark movers and shakers on how best to develop the city. Monteilh invites the schools to the meetings, he says, "simply because we see them as powerful engines inside the city."
With approximately 30,000 students and 10,000 employees, its hard to understand why this wasn't always the case. Nationwide, universities employ nearly 3 million people--65 percent on urban campuses, according to the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (www.icic.org), a think tank founded by Michael Porter, Harvard Business School's guru of competitive advantage. And since few of those employees are likely to see their job outsourced to China any time soon, universities are seen in an increasingly positive light, particularly in poorer cities such as Newark.
The reason for the increased support of schools from the city isn't that Newark has suddenly turned prosperous. Although nearly $1 billion in infrastructure improvements are on the way--including a hockey stadium, a Passaic River waterfront park, and 4 million square feet of office space--Newark remains a very poor place. Nearly 28 percent of its residents live in poverty, only 9 percent have graduated from college, and 47 percent of families are headed by a single parent, according to 2000 census data.
City government attitudes have helped, administrators say; so has a decline in crime. Hampton at UMDNJ says that 10 years ago he wouldn't have walked the two-tenths of a mile from his school to Rutgers or Essex County College, their community college neighbor. Today, he says, on one recent afternoon, "it was a nice sunny day and a lot of people were out walking briskly between the campuses."
But perhaps most importantly, many prospective college students want to live in cities these days. Bronstein says that many students want to live on an urban campus, not so much to avoid the commute as for the opportunity to live in a livelier, more diverse community. As Rutgers urban planning professor Anton Nelessen says, "The whole suburban campus thing is now becoming very passe. Who wants to go to a campus that looks like a shopping mall? Not any of the people I've ever polled."
Bronstein says Rutgers residential students who choose Newark over New Brunswick "are students who might otherwise have gone to New Brunswick and lived on campus. Instead they're saying, 'You know what? I want to go to Newark and have everything that the city has to offer, but at the same time, I'm not willing to give up a traditional residential experience where you live away from home.'" In addition, international students prefer an urban campus as well, according to Bronstein, where they are more likely to find familiar faces and communities.
However, students want a lot of things that universities don't provide. So why go to the trouble of becoming a landlord? The reason is that as a business proposition, dorms make sense for schools. "As many other urban research universities have found over the years, one of the ways to increase not only the visibility of the campus but the interest in it is to add residential capacity both for undergraduate students and for graduate students," explains Gene Vicente, Rutgers Newark's assistant provost.
Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education Systems in Denver, says that retention rates are likely to be higher at schools with dorms, which reduces the cost of recruiting and increases the predictability of tuition revenue streams. Adding some beds does seem to have helped in Rutgers' case: Vincente says that the Rutgers Newark campus has grown from 9,200 in 1997 to 10,500 this year--and within three to five years, they project enrollment will climb to 12,000.
Planners also cite the rising numbers of college-age students, current low interest rates, and the growing number of private housing developers willing to work not just as contractors but as long-term partners with universities, as reasons that so many commuter schools are deciding to put up more housing.
But don't call them dorms. The "scary part" for any university choosing to build housing, says Bronstein, is that students today want many more amenities than they did in the past. They simply won't accept the kind of old-style shower-down-the-hall dorms that used to be a fixture of most colleges.
Students today are much savvier consumers, increasingly aware of their on- and off-campus options than were students even a decade ago. Their life experiences may also have made them a bit fussier. "Something like 85 percent of incoming college freshmen have never shared a bedroom in their life," Bronstein adds. "And about 30 percent have never even shared a bathroom."
Fortunately, they're willing to pay for better-quality rooms. "What's really remarkable to us is the level to which students and their parents are stepping up to pay for much more expensive product," says Bronstein. "Most parents' reaction is, 'I'm paying $20,000 a year for tuition and room and fees for my son or daughter. Do you think I'm not going to pay the marginal 10 percent difference of $2,000 to know that my child is living in the nicest, cleanest, safest, most convenient institution, versus an old residence hall?' It's a no-brainer," he adds.
Interestingly, Bronstein believes it's not the parents most able to afford that supplement who are usually willing to pay the extra money. "I think it's the ones who are less affluent who are almost more willing. Typically, if it's first generation, it's a struggle and a sacrifice for them to send their son or daughter. They want to do it right," he says.
The foundation for the current improved climate for development is due in part to some work that the New Jersey universities did to help change city residents' attitudes toward them, according to Hampton of UMDNJ.
Hampton gives much of the credit to this improving environment in Newark to an informal organization of presidents of the four contiguous Newark schools. The Council on Higher Education in Newark has worked since the 1980s to try to change things for their 1.6-square-mile section of Newark's Central Ward, which they rebranded University Heights. Through initiatives such as the creation of Science Park, a high-tech industrial zone, some pre-college classes for local high schoolers, the building of a special public high school for science students, and even an affordable housing project, Hampton says that the schools have tried to overcome leftover ill will from the '60s. "We, the universities, had to learn how to be good neighbors," he explains.
Now, looking out beyond the challenge of building places for students to live, Newark administrators would like to make University Heights a livelier home as well. "If people have nothing to do, then what happens?" Bronstein asks. "They all go home on the weekend... And that's one of the issues that [Rutgers] Newark has."
Without putting in that effort, the university will be seen just as "a commuter school with bedrooms," as Alan Wampler, president of the Synergy Group, a Pittsburgh-based real estate consultancy, puts it.
But it's not easy. Robert Lovitt, vice president for Business Affairs at the University of Texas at Dallas--which has added 3,900 beds to his fast-growing 14,000-student campus since 1990--says that developing student life has been one of the toughest issues his campus has faced. "Students are very much into what they do on the weekends and the evenings when they're done studying," he says.
One way to add vitality is by developing more shops and restaurants, planners agree. And that's next on the agenda for the Newark university administrators. The University Heights neighborhood remains underserved when it comes to shops and restaurants, according to Hampton. Although there are roughly 30,000 students and 10,000 faculty in the area, there are still only a few bars and shops, none of them national chains. "One would think by now that [the area] would support a great amount of retail by national chain organizations," he says. But it doesn't. In fact, according to Hampton, there are still very few places for students and faculty to eat or hang out, and no chains--not even a Starbucks.
For UMDNJ, one obstacle to creating more street life is a legacy of the old days, according to Hampton: Crime fears led the university to build with no ground-level retail and a lot of blank walls. Now he hopes to begin to cut some of those walls at the ground floor and turn some of the adjacent space into shops.
Vincente says creating more retail is a priority for Rutgers. This upcoming 600-bed building will contain approximately 7,000 square feet of retail space. The new graduate student housing, he says, will add approximately 35,000 square feet.
But, says Paul Hansen, the head of the education practice group at VOA (www.voa.com), a Chicago-based architectural firm, a university should be careful not to develop too much retail. Local merchants may feel threatened, which can create political difficulties. Too many shops can also hurt the school's image. Hansen warns that colleges shouldn't "go so far retail that they basically start building strip malls on the edges or the campus. There's a balance between what the merchant needs to survive and what the school needs so as to not look like it's going McUniversity or something."
Yet despite the political and financial risks involved in such development, Diner seems confident that building University Heights is important to Rutgers' future. A historian whose first book covered the contribution the University of Chicago faculty made to the city during the Progressive era, Diner says he learned through that project how important an urban location can be to a university's faculty and students.
"I never gave up on this notion that the city was really the most exciting place to be a college student and the most exciting place to be a professor," he explains. "And that very much drives my vision of where we need to move."
Bennett Voyles is a New York-based business and finance writer.