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Five-star accommodations on campus

Institutions load amenities into residence halls for today’s more demanding students—but do high-end offerings cause a housing gap?
University Business, November 2014
  • The University of North Florida's Osprey Fountains residence hall has two pools.
  • The University at Albany’s Empire Commons, above, and Liberty Terrace (completed in 2012) have kept a higher percentage of upperclassmen living on campus.
  • Montclair State University’s The Heights is a $211 million, 2,000-bed residence hall with suite-style singles and doubles that are open to all classes.
  • The University of Michigan has built a new residence hall and renovated several others recently, but students don't necessarily pay higher fees for newer dorms.

Today’s incoming freshmen who have never shared a room want more privacy than previous generations of dorm dwellers would have ever expected. And many students now are especially not eager to share bathrooms with an entire hallway of classmates.

Of course, turbo-charged Wi-Fi is essential—and air-conditioning, cable TV, game rooms, kitchens, cafes and even a lazy-river swimming pool can be deciding factors for prospective students. Some institutions also use these amenities to lure upperclassmen away from off-campus landlords.

“Students don’t come to a campus because of housing, but if they’re choosing between two campuses, housing plays a role,” says Laurie Garafola, the University at Albany’s residential life director. “You have to wow the students and the parents.”

And many administrators say a significant number of students are willing to pay for residence halls that have more in common with modern hotels than with the cramped, concrete-block dormitories built in the 1960s and 70s. However, questions of who can—and can’t—afford the higher rates may arise around the housing allocation process as campus living becomes more luxurious.

Trying to prevent haves and have-nots

Montclair State University’s The Heights is a $211 million, 2,000-bed residence hall with suite-style singles and doubles that are open to all classes. Each bathroom is shared by no more than two students. The rooms, wired for Wi-Fi and 78 channels of cable TV, have higher ceilings than the New Jersey university’s older dorms, but aren’t much larger.

Montclair State “desperately needed new housing,” Karen Pennington, vice president for student development and campus life, says of the motivation for the project.

Dapper dorms

Here are some of the amenities colleges and universities are loading into today’s more luxurious residence halls:

24-hour convenience stores

Air conditioning and in-room thermostats

Art studios

Beach volleyball courts

Bigger refrigerators

Cable, satellite and high-def TV

Classrooms

Coffee shops

Fitness centers

Front desk staffed 24 hours a day

Game rooms with pool tables and large monitors for video games

Gardens (on the ground or rooftop)

High-tech collaboration rooms

Outdoor grills

Private bathrooms

Private kitchens or kitchens on each floor

Recycling centers

Single rooms for first-year students

Smart conference rooms

Social lounges

Soundproof music practice rooms

Swimming pools

Video-editing rooms

Wi-Fi

But there are students who simply can’t afford the rates for a single room in The Heights, which opened in 2011 with two complexes of four towers each, Pennington says.

“Times have changed and we need to change with them to make sure we are giving students the kinds of things that will help make them feel comfortable,” she says. “Students today are expecting space, and they are unaccustomed to the common bathroom or even to sharing with a large number of people.”

Per-semester rates at The Heights are $5,594 for a single and $5,120 for a double. Rates at one of Montclair State’s three traditional residence halls for the same style rooms are $4,850 and $3,994.

“It’s not about making the money, it’s about serving the students,” Pennington says. “To build a fancy new building, it’s a business proposition—you can’t build a 1960s property for 2014 students.”

Among the amenities at The Heights are a pair of community kitchens where students can make their own meals and chefs from dining services teach cooking classes. There’s also a game room with a large-screen TV, a lounge on each floor, spaces for tutoring and a soundproof room where students can practice presentations.

The Heights and its amenities appear to have helped with retention. About 75 percent of 2012-13 freshmen stayed in housing this year, and many of them lived in The Heights. And that’s an increase from the 68 percent of 2011-12 freshmen who stayed in housing the following year.

“Students recognize a new building is going to cost more. For some, it’s something they aren’t able to manage,” she says. “We’re careful to make sure we’re not creating too much of a have, have-not situation.”

To that end, Montclair State is renovating older dorms so they can support amenities similar to those found at The Heights. Those dorms also have been getting new carpeting, lighting, desks and beds, among other upgrades, Pennington says.

How to create destination dorms

A 200-foot lazy river is one of two pools at the Osprey Fountains residence hall, which the University of North Florida opened in 2009. The 385,000-square-foot, five-story residence hall houses about 1,000 students—mostly juniors and seniors—in private single rooms and four- and six-person suites with mostly single bedrooms.

Osprey Fountains was built at a time when the public university in Jacksonville was investing heavily in facilities. It also was working to transition from being a commuter school to one that’s more residential, says Bob Boyle, the director of housing and residence life.

More square footage and amenities also was seen as a strategy to drive enrollment. “We were trying to create a destination on campus,” Boyle says. “And it’s been a good choice for us—it continues to be a facility students are interested in, both when choosing what institution they want to attend and when choosing to continue with us in housing.”

The complex’s operations desk, the fitness room, Ozzie’s Convenience Store and several “theme lounges”—including a gaming area with large TVs and a similarly equipped room where students can watch sporting events—are open 24 hours. The complex is divided into “houses” of 50 students, each with its own cooking area, social lounge and study rooms.

There also are 10 laundry rooms, single-stream recycling and 1,000 parking spaces. And, of course, the complex is Wi-Fi equipped, though each suite also offers hardwired internet access.

“We’re competing for students,” Boyle says. “There’s an off-campus housing market that caters to college-age students. ... They’ve got pools and they’ve got study rooms and other amenities.”

Boyle says his housing department is funded solely by the rents collected from students—it doesn’t get tuition or tax money. And, the rents are put back into the upkeep of the facilities, management and residential life programming.

The rates at Osprey Fountains for this school year range from $4,800 a semester for a private one-bedroom to $2,730 for a double room in a suite with four other single rooms. The rate covers all utilities, including digital satellite TV with high-def channels.

One less expensive option at the university is Osprey Hall, a traditional dorm where singles without in-room bathrooms run $3,250 a semester and doubles are $2,100.

Despite the extra cost, there is clear demand for Osprey Fountains—by July 1, there was a waiting list for the residence hall.

Keeping the rate system fair

Over the last several years, University of Michigan has renovated seven aging residence halls and built North Quad, the first new housing complex since 1967. But none of it belongs in the “luxury” category, says Peter Logan, director of communications for University of Michigan housing.

“We don’t consider that what we’re building are luxury residence halls,” Logan says. “You have commercial property managers definitely trying to attract students to upper-level facilities that have a number of special amenities and appeals that go beyond what we consider to be the appropriate community amenities for on-campus living.”

The administration also decided it would set housing rates based on room type instead of charging more for newer units. “We thought it would be unfair to create a premium-rate system whereby students who could afford nicer places could move in there and we would end up creating a housing community of haves and have-nots,” Logan says.

In both the new construction and the renovations, there has been a focus on modernizing tech and safety infrastructure—plus installing air conditioning, an amenity Logan says many students expect. Student demand has also resulted in more “community learning centers,” rooms equipped for collaboration, including tables with large display screens that can accommodate several laptops. Music rooms and community kitchens have been added, as well.

“We’re not trying to compete with the commercial enterprises going up around us in Ann Arbor,” Logan says. “We don’t need to—we still have a large demand of incoming and returning students to live on campus, even more so now that we have facilities that are more comfortable and that better suit their needs.”

Higher cost not deterring students

The University at Albany hasn’tt observed any pushback from students because of the higher rates charged for newer residence halls that offer single rooms, private kitchens and high-tech common areas, says Garafola, the residential life director.

Albany has been trying to get more seniors and juniors to choose residence halls, in part because administrators feel living on campus is safer.

“Students are willing to pay that additional cost for the amenities,” Garafola says. “I think the idea of the convenience, the safety initiatives built in and the idea of having a single room—the cost isn’t necessarily seen as a negative factor.”

Albany’s Empire Commons and Liberty Terrace (completed in 2012) have kept a higher percentage of upperclassmen living on campus.

Empire Commons—which offers private rooms in four-bedroom, two-bath apartments—costs $10,800 per academic year while Liberty Terrace is $10,400. The rate for a traditional residence hall’s double unit is about $7,400.

The higher rates reflect the higher cost of building residence halls with more amenities, Garafola says.

But students in the apartments, which have kitchens in each unit, can save money by not paying for a $2,000 meal plan that is a requirement for residents of the older dorms.

Among other amenities in each apartment at Empire Commons are laundry rooms, entertainment centers and heating/air conditioning that can be controlled within the unit.

Liberty Terrace, which overlooks a campus lake, has its own fitness center as well as smart conference rooms and study spaces. Both complexes are wired for the latest technology.

“We don’t want to inflate the price so much that our students can’t afford to continue to live on campus,” Garafola says. “It’s important to stay within a certain limit so that these living options are available and accessible to all.”

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.

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