Colleges Need a Comprehensive Housing Plan

by Katie Sloan

Consultation with real estate experts can guide an institution toward long-term educational success.

Kurt EhlersCinder block walls, bunk beds and communal bathrooms: Many of us lived in this kind of dormitory for at least one, if not four years of our college experience. Today, student housing is changing and becoming more modern; if a 10-by-16 foot room with cinder block walls is still a school’s only housing option, that institution is missing a key competitive factor that could make or break a potential student’s decision to enroll. Students want modern facilities, privacy and convenience, while parents want safety and affordability. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the increasingly widespread transformation of off-campus housing for college students into luxury, resort-style living with incredible amenities. Faced with dwindling endowments and rising infrastructure costs, many schools have simply not been able to keep up with deferred maintenance, let alone pursue modernization or new construction like these off-campus options.

Competition among schools for the top students is fierce, and it is important that colleges and universities not let housing deteriorate as it continues to become a larger component in students’ decisions about where they attend. The past decade has also seen a huge jump in enrollment. Between 2000 and 2010, 37 percent (5.7 million) more students enrolled in higher education institutions. Full-time enrollment alone increased by 45 percent. With college enrollment numbers projected to rise at a similar rate in the next decade and endowments facing a continuous decline, many colleges and universities will find themselves in a perfect storm. These institutions will have to provide flexible housing options that can comfortably accommodate a larger number of students in their on-campus residences. Through the formation and enactment of a comprehensive housing plan, colleges and universities will have the ability to anticipate and handle this increase in enrollment without negatively impacting the student experience.

A successful comprehensive housing plan includes a detailed timeline for maintenance and modernization of current housing, a strategy for accommodating student body growth and a sustainable plan to finance upkeep and maintenance. The plan should take into consideration what students and parents want in housing. A 2012 National Apartment Association survey of 11,195 students and 3,605 parents on perceptions of student housing design and amenities found that, after price, students ranked proximity to campus, apartment features and amenities as the most important factors they considered when selecting an apartment.

Additionally, a plan should include a strategy to reinvest in upkeep and maintenance, which seems to be – more often than not – a major drain on the financial resources of an institution. Colleges simply cannot continue along the same path as the past 10 years, which according to a recent article in the New York Times included incurring millions of dollars in debt while trying to attract students with modern housing and facilities, leaving students to pick up the tab. They must have a sustainable plan that allows them to maintain the high quality residences that are a major draw for potential students, and comfortable community spaces and living-learning environments that promote academic success for the long-term.

While colleges and universities routinely work with professional real estate developers on one-off campus projects, the creation of a holistic, long-term plan for the construction, management and maintenance of all on-campus student residences is a school’s answer for providing quality student housing, while simultaneously freeing up more revenue that can be allocated toward improving academic programs and other key campus facilities.

The core competency of colleges and universities is education, not real estate development, construction or property management. Nevertheless, long-term planning and investing in student housing in partnership with real estate industry specialists can be a solution to many challenges that universities face, including student acquisition and retention, alumni connection and cost efficiency to free up funding for academics and other facilities.

In addition to keeping a school competitive, quality housing that is well-maintained creates a safe, inviting learning environment that puts students in a position to succeed academically. This in turn contributes to high graduation and retention rates that are important to a school’s reputation and marketing efforts. Studies have shown that students who live on campus not only achieve better academic results, but are also more supportive and involved with their Alma Mater post-graduation. To be able to support the development of these modern facilities, schools need a revenue stream that will provide sufficient funds for consistently improving the living situations of all students.

Student housing touches many aspects of college life, including the administration, students and their families, the academic departments and the overall reputation of the institution. A comprehensive plan that provides stable, long-term and sustainable housing for students will allow schools to focus their time and financial resources on their core academic mission, provide students with a safe living-learning environment, increase their competitive edge and accommodate the enrollment of a larger student body.

— Kurt Ehlers is the managing director of Corvias Campus Living. He previously served as executive vice president of the company’s military housing division, Picerne Military Housing, overseeing all Air Force programs as well as managing housing programs at Fort Bragg, N.C., and Fort Rucker, Ala.

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