Student Housing Business holds a roundtable of university housing directors to hear their thoughts and gauge the challenges in the current environment.
Student Housing Business recently held a roundtable of university housing directors when the on-campus sector was gathered in New Orleans for the ACUHO-I Annual Conference. SHB did so to get views of housing directors on the changing nature of student housing on campus, as well as how on-campus housing is working with off-campus housing to resolve student housing needs. The roundtable was moderated by Randall Shearin, editor of Student Housing Business, and Mark Aden, media advisor. Attendees of the roundtable were:
Ann Bailey, director of housing and residence life, Mississippi State University.
Dennis Collins, director of housing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mike Schultz, director of university housing, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
Emily Galindo, director of housing, University of California-Davis.
Joan Carbone, executive director of residence life, Rutgers University.
Peter Englin, director of residence life, Iowa State University.
Kirsten Kennedy, director of university housing, University of South Carolina.
SHB: How many beds do you have, and what is your on-campus living policy?
Bailey: We require freshmen to live on campus; we will eclipse 20,000 in enrollment this year. Our bed count now is around 4,000.
Collins: We have about 3,400 undergraduates living on campus. We have a freshman requirement. We guarantee any undergraduate eight contiguous semesters on campus. Our students tend to stay on campus; we have about 74 percent of our students living on campus. About 23 percent live in fraternities, sororities and independent living groups. Only three percent live off campus. About 2,300 out of 6,500 graduate students also live on campus.
Schultz: We have a full-time enrollment of 14,000. We are housing about 3,500 students. I just sent a letter to about 400 students that we will not be able to house [for 2012].
Kennedy: Internally, we used to call that the ‘Mary and Joseph letter’; there’s no room at the inn.
Schultz: We just established a freshman and sophomore requirement two years ago, but we have not been able to enforce it. The policy allows the vice chancellor for student affairs to waive that requirement. We just don’t have the beds. We are in Edwardsville, Illinois, which is 20 minutes east of St. Louis [Missouri].
Galindo (pictured at left): Our enrollment is 30,000. Our on-campus residence halls hold about 4,500 students. We have a mixture of university-owned and privately owned apartments on campus that increases the number of on-campus students by about 2,000. We don’t require our students to live on campus. Davis is a college town. There are 9,000 apartments in the city of Davis, so there is plenty of housing for our students in and around town. About 90 percent of our first-year students will live on campus. After that first year, they usually move off campus and get an apartment with their friends.
Carbone (pictured at right): We have about 35,000 students at Rutgers. We have three campuses. New Brunswick is the campus where I am; the other two campuses are smaller and more urban, so I’m not counting them in my figures. We have 14,500 living on campus and we are building 1,500 more beds to open fall 2012. We will hit 16,000 then. We think we will be around where Michigan State University is, which I believe has the largest number of beds. We would love to make all our freshmen live on campus, but we’ve never had enough space to do so. We have 600 beds that are in partnership with a New Brunswick development corporation. Everything else is owned by the university.
Englin: At Iowa State, we have about 29,000 students enrolled. On campus, we hope to hit 10,000 [beds] this fall. In 2005, we were at 7,758 [beds] and we have been growing our capacity, not our occupancy. We have no requirement for students to live on campus, but we typically capture about 92 percent of freshmen. We shoot for a 50 percent return rate freshmen to sophomore. Our sophomore to junior rates are over 60 percent; and junior to senior return rate last year was 89 percent. It was all voluntary. We don’t have any public-private partnerships. Off campus, we have groups like Sterling and The Grove [Campus Crest] who have recently entered our market.
Kennedy: At South Carolina, we have about 27,000 students enrolled. We have 6,600 undergraduate beds and 215 graduate apartments. We require freshmen to live on campus. Some of our student housing buildings are historic, from the early 1800s.
SHB: What are your short-term goals for your student housing program? If you look two years into the future, where would you like to be?
Galindo: I’ve been the director now for four years. I took a serious look at our safety concerns. We did some seismic testing as well as ensuring that all our buildings were sprinkled. Our seismic testing found that about 1,300 of 4,500 beds don’t meet seismic requirements. The cost to renovate was not worth it, given the age of the buildings. We are doing massive replacement of residence hall space. That is my next project for 2014; 1,200 new beds. In the middle of that, our new chancellor is looking to grow the campus. Our challenge is not only to replace beds, but we may need to add beds as well.
Collins: At MIT, we are opening a new residence hall in August. The intent was to bring our enrollment up. We had dropped enrollment by 300 or 400 students over the last 10 years. They want to get back to the undergraduate enrollment of 4,500 students. The new residence hall will be 500 beds that will allow us, over the next three years, to reduce crowding and accommodate the increased enrollment. Our buildings are very old. Over the next five years, I have to come up with a strategic plan on renovating the older buildings. The ‘new’ dorm I just mentioned is actually a 100-year-old building that was closed for three years with a major renovation. We need to continue and do the others.
Schultz (pictured at right): We are kind of unusual. We started with 1,500 beds in apartments and then went back and built traditional residence halls in suite-style. Since 1994, we’ve added 1,500 beds for freshmen and then added another 500 beds for upperclassmen. For the future, we are looking to enhance campus life with our housing stock. The next goal is to develop Greek housing on campus. We don’t have traditional off-campus housing in our community. One developer has tried to build off campus, and that failed. If they do not succeed, we will be looking to build more beds on campus.
Galindo: In addition to everything we are doing with student housing, the campus did a third-party development called West Village. At build-out, the intention is to have 2,000 beds for students. The property is mixed, so it will also have housing for faculty and staff. There is also a community college adjacent to the campus. We have to watch to see how those numbers play out to determine what the department might build. We don’t want to be in competition.
SHB: How do you, as housing directors, view the off-campus market?
Bailey (pictured at left): I cannot be without them right now. I have more people who want to live on campus than I can house. Our dean of students’ office, through our director of parent services, created a website that assists with finding off-campus housing. It allows every property in town who wants to subscribe to be on the site, that is linked to the Mississippi State web page. Housing refers people to that site when we cannot house them.
Kennedy: There were 10,000 beds built around our campus in the last 10 years. The dynamic has changed quite a bit in a relatively short period of time. For the most part, most of this housing is two to three miles from campus. There is an intricate shuttle system, but it doesn’t stop students from having cars. At one time, our board wanted 40 to 50 percent of our undergraduates to live on campus. That is difficult to achieve with the rate that enrollment is growing. Our new master plan is supposed to tell us how many beds we will need to support in the future.
Englin (pictured at right): I spent five years in the dean of students role at Iowa State prior to being the director of residence. Our off-campus partners are critical. We serve 33 percent; there are still 18,000 to 19,000 students who need a place to live. When [off-campus housing] serves our students well, it is great. When they don’t, it is a great concern. In the late 1990s, our master plan allowed us to renovate half of our facilities. We also built apartments and two suite buildings. Half of our 2.9 million square feet didn’t get touched. When I arrived, we needed to build our occupancy. We had capacity. Three weeks in, we imploded two high rises and replaced them. Our master plan prompted a lot of people in our community to build off-campus housing. They built away from campus. In response, our students went to fare free riding for our city transit system. Right now, off campus, we have 1,100 beds proposed within four blocks of our football stadium and within a mile of our campus. These developers have recognized location, location, location. Our concern is that the market is overbuilt.
SHB: Do you watch the number of beds closely in the market? Has it ever had a serious effect on your housing stock?
Englin: We watch it really closely. We have a great town and gown relationship. We are concerned about the community. It affects the rental market and all residential building.
Galindo: We do an annual survey for vacancies in the community. We send the survey to all the apartment complexes to get information right after school starts. We look at what their vacancy rates are and what they are charging for rent. We share all that information with everyone who participates, and it is a great planning tool.
Collins (pictured at right): Although we are in Cambridge, the city of Boston has been concerned about the number of undergraduates in housing there. There are so many colleges in the city and so many students living off campus. They cause a lot of issues in the communities. The city has been pushing the universities in Boston to build housing to get the students out of the city’s hair. Luckily, we have had most of our undergraduates living on campus. On my staff, I have someone who has responsibility for off-campus housing. We have a website and we do lists [of providers]. My staff person knows the right neighborhoods and landlords. She can be a resource if they are having problems with the landlords. That service is primarily for our grad students.
Schultz: We have a great town and gown relationship. I sat on a committee with the city, where they established ordinances where there cannot be more than three unrelated names living in a property within the city. This is so we don’t get situations, where people are in basements and students, are living in neighborhoods creating parking issues and so forth. It was brought forward by the major real estate owners in the community who were trying to get to a standard that would be acceptable for students. They are the watch dog and report it to the city when people are violating the ordinance.
Carbone: We are in an unusual situation in that New Jersey is a small state, and we are in the center of it. Most of our students don’t need to live on campus. They do it for the convenience of being close and for the experience. A freshman, for example, wouldn’t move off campus if they couldn’t get on campus. They would commute from home. We are surrounded by dilapidated housing so we don’t compete [with off campus]. The developers can only do little units. We don’t have any [private] high rises around us.
SHB: Every university wants to have a showpiece residence hall that has retail on the bottom, a dining hall, huge study spaces, and a ton of amenities for students. Is anyone developing a dynamic project like this?
Carbone: That’s what our new, 1,500-bed project is. It is unbelievable; it is like building a little city. It has retail on the ground level and computer labs. It has courtyards. It is expansive in its footprint, as well as the kinds of things that are inside it. Unfortunately, it will be compared with our ‘historic’ buildings.
Galindo: We are being asked by student affairs to take on the orientation role. As we are taking on that role, in our new, 1,200-bed project we are including large lecture space that can be used to facilitate the orientation sessions. We also have first-year seminars that our staff does. This project will be able to provide us with space to hold these events.
SHB: A number of universities are looking at student life as the core of their campus mission. They want students to be satisfied and have that campus experience, and housing is one of the biggest avenues toward that success.
Carbone: Our project was part of a campus plan; it wasn’t just a residence plan. We are putting a three-screen movie theater in underneath this project. That is not just for the residents; it’s for the entire campus.
Englin: That is essentially what we are expected to do in a town like Ames. The town is 58,000 people and the university’s students are half of that. We house a third of the student population. We’ve learned that students who get over a 2.0 GPA their first semester have an 81 percent graduation rate within six years. If they get less than a 2.0, the rate falls to 31 percent. That first semester is important. We focus on student engagement and student learning. We have learning communities; about half the students involved in learning communities live on campus. About 75 percent of all our freshmen participate in learning communities upon arrival. We are more aware and strategic about what we are doing than we were 10 years ago.
Kennedy: We get approached by a lot of off-campus operators asking us ‘what do you do to train your RAs?’
SHB: We hear from the off-campus operators that they do feel that they have to provide a lot of student life services, especially at larger universities. In some cases, they may feel that students aren’t getting that because they have been detached from the university and are unsure of how to access these services.
Englin: There are two things I share with off-campus property managers. I meet with them regularly. I tell them to create a student-friendly lease. If they get an internship, practicum or graduate mid-lease, let them roll. If you want to demonstrate that you care about students, you need to be sensitive about their academic opportunities. As well, if they misbehave, they should be kicked out. It is the bottom line that tells us this is your primary concern. Students who live with us have an obligation to the university in their conduct. When I was in the dean of students role, there was a real hesitancy [from off-campus operators] to discipline. They wanted to make the students accountable within the university system for behavior that occurred in their facilities, but they didn’t want to take the action within their facilities. In an off-campus project, you call the police, not us.
SHB: State budgets are a big item in the news these days. Has this affected any of your housing plans or curtailed any expansion plans? What challenges do you face with this?
Kennedy (pictured at left): South Carolina’s budgets were cut early. The implication for [housing] is that we are an auxiliary. Other units within student affairs are now paying a lot more money to other units. We have cut our maintenance budget. We can’t cut staff because of occupancy.
Schultz: I’m lucky to be at an institution where I am supported, but I think it is important that housing revenues are not another way of getting into students’ pockets and not another way to funnel income. It is critical that we maintain what our mission is and what our responsibilities are. If there needs to be another fee that is developed for student services, so be it, but we shouldn’t be taking it out of housing. We need to pay our fair share for support, but we don’t need to be a funnel for money coming out. Once you open that floodgate, it is hard to close it.
Englin: Most of us want to be open and honest with our students. As the institutions are under increasing pressure, there might be a desire to be [less transparent]. We take our rate proposal to our students and they vote on it. Then we take it to our president and the board of regents. They see our 10-year facilities’ reinvestment plan and they see our 10-year financial pro-forma. They know what our assumptions are and they know where we want to reinvest. That has helped us in our dialog. Our utilities went up $1 million in one year due to a state budget cut and an internal decision to reallocate the budgets at our power plant to those across the university. The auxiliaries had to pay their portion; the rest were going to get tuition revenue to subsidize it. It ended up causing that increase to be spread over three years. That equated to a 1 percent increase to our students each year.
Galindo: At the end of the day, it is the students that are paying. They might think that student housing has deep pockets and will come to the rescue of the rest of the division, but it is the students who fund us. At some point, students are only going to pay so much. Then they are going to figure out a cheaper way to find a bed to sleep in. It has been a challenge. We are supporting more things than we ever have with our funding. It is the nature of being an auxiliary. Relationships are huge, so I worked really hard with the budget office on campus so they aren’t second guessing when [requesting changes].
Bailey: I concur that relationships work. The people who are in finance and administration at my campus are critical to our success.
SHB: What is your biggest challenge running a housing department at a major university?
Kennedy: For me, it is funding and financing our renovations and new construction. Our institution on one hand will say that we are reaching our debt capacity and we need to do public-private partnerships. We talk about what that means in terms of quality and control and we don’t want to be in that [structure]. I have historic buildings that are in a lot of trouble. Trying to decide how to allocate that debt capacity that I have left to various capital projects is challenging. How I’m going to spread that around in the most effective manner.
Englin: My concerns are identical. We do some things that I would term ‘curb appeal.’ But some facilities need new windows, restrooms, furniture, etc. Those items get dated when they are 30 to 50 years old. Staying solvent and looking at improvement when the cost is going to run into the tens of millions of dollars is the challenge.
Carbone: Renovation is also the biggest issue for us. Keeping up with the amenities that students expect now is difficult. A lot of our older buildings are not air conditioned. We are not in New Orleans, but New Jersey can get hot in the summer. There is an expectation now of amenities that they didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago.
Galindo: My challenge has to do with the fact that we make decisions differently than the rest of the campus. We are business folks. We have to plan far in advance where we are going to go and how we are going to get there. What I find frustrating is when someone decides today they want to do something else tomorrow. We need an opportunity to figure out how. We try to respond, but we need to have time to chart a course of action. That is hard in our environment.
Schultz: My biggest challenge is keeping our housing rates affordable and planning to put money away in our reserves so we don’t get into the situation where we don’t have money to keep up with our facilities. The challenge is to make sure no one looks at the reserves as a pot of money that they can tap. You can plan all you want, but if someone pulls the rug from beneath you, you have a problem. In other words, we can build that pot up to a point without being a target. We also want to be able to meet the needs of developing programs on campus. We have to make sure the programs are up and running first, before we build housing for them. For example, we want to have a strong Greek program before we build Greek housing. We want to make sure there is a strong honors program before we build honors housing. We don’t want to have the tail wagging the dog.
Collins: We have the challenge of historic buildings. There is a need for major renovations. I have built so many graduate buildings in the last 10 years that we are close to our debt limit. Luckily, the building that we are opening now was an existing building and was mostly funded. MIT has just floated a substantial amount of bonds to look at their entire infrastructure on campus because they see [changes coming] over the next 10 years. My challenge is developing that plan over the next 10 years.
Bailey: Occupancy management is one of my big challenges. We have to manage our demand by looking at past trends and try to make projections into the future. We also work with enrollment and admissions to stay side-by-side during the journey.