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Student housing: Designing a piece of the college experience

Housing is as important as ever in keeping students on campus


Submitted by Christopher Miller (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

To understand where higher education housing is going, you have to understand a little about where housing has been in the 21st century.

Since 2000, housing on campuses saw a boom due to an influx of students now known as the Millenials. This group is estimated to be approximately 24% larger than the Baby Boomer generation and going to college in higher numbers. Enrollment forecasts were all up and colleges rushed to have new housing available. Many colleges were not looking to increase their enrollments so instead increased their standards for acceptance. This, in turn, generated a fight for higher performing students. Residence projects were seen as a way to entice students to campus, especially higher performing ones, so new housing became a race to build the most luxurious and amenity filled places. Gone were the days of traditional dorms. Instead they were replaced by townhouses, apartments and full suites, sometimes with pools, water park features, cafes and state-of-the-art, theater-style TV lounges. In 2004, housing projects nationally were seen to be around $140 per square foot and $42,000 per bed. By 2008 when the price peaked, per square foot costs had risen to near $240 and per bed to over $70,000. Prices in the northeast and Florida were even higher.

Then the recession occurred.

In the aftermath of the recession, colleges and universities saw their capital budgets tighten, and campuses reduced their fervor for new housing. Where campuses still saw a housing shortage, there was a push to go off balance sheet by having developers build housing on adjacent land. Most importantly for colleges and universities, the recession meant fewer students coming to college.

Since then, campuses have started focusing on how to raise enrollment. Some have pursued increasing foreign student admissions. Others are looking at new engagement strategies – effectively taking a business development approach by making personal connections to potential students. Housing, meanwhile, has tended to wallow since colleges and universities find it difficult to justify the expense of high-end housing to entice new students.

The newest trend in enrollment, though, has a direct effect on housing. As recently as October, the Chronicle of Higher Education featured how many schools seek ways to better engage the population they already have to retain more of those students. The demographic of classes on a typical college campus is skewed towards underclassmen and then it drops off through the sophomore to junior years. But by finding ways to keep students in school and on campus, colleges and universities can offset declines in freshman enrollment through a holistic approach in academics, student support, career development, and student life. In most of these plans, the study identified the need for a renewed focus on the campus’ housing stock to better support the academic and social growth of students.

In my early years working in housing, there were simply two terms for a housing project: underclassmen and upperclassmen. The former usually meant low-end finishes, extra-durable construction, and often little to no building character – outside or in. The latter meant full suites, apartments or townhomes with higher end finishes, buildings with a “residential scale,” and outdoor spaces designed for intimate groups or reflection. The former was treated as “just a dorm” while the latter was a residence. This system rewarded juniors and seniors but often marginalized the sophomore class. By lumping sophomores in with freshmen, campuses were under serving the class and often causing them to become disillusioned about the institution.

Colleges often then take the approach to treat all students equally for housing by changing their housing stock to feature suites, singles or townhomes for any level, much like having your own room growing up. In surveys, it is what the students reported seeking when considering colleges. But this is a disservice to freshmen who often will feel isolated at the end of their first year, which contributes to the attrition rate. There is a social aspect to college that housing can serve, and by homogenizing housing stock, campuses were not serving their freshmen classes well.

Designing student housing means understanding the mix of students who will be living there and better designing for their place in the college experience. This design should support the student both academically and socially, which ultimately leads to better success in college, and fond memories of their time there long after graduation.

Chris Miller, AIA, is an architect and student housing specialist based in our Philadelphia office.

Designing student housing means understanding the mix of students who will live there and designing for their place in the college experience

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