The Multi-University Graduate Student Village

by Katie Sloan

The Multi-University Graduate Student Village.


Barry Bluestone

 “Demography as destiny” is a lesson urban university and college admissions officers are about to experience along with the mayors of the cities where these schools are located.  According to the Census Bureau, between now and 2020 the U.S. population (Age 18+) will increase by roughly 24.7 million.  Of this total, the number of 18- to 24-year olds will grow by just 0.3 percent or 104,000, a tiny fraction compared to the increase of 3.4 million in the previous decade.  The number of prime age adults (age 25-64), the core of the workforce, will increase by 6.1 percent or 10 million.  The largest increase, however, 14.6 million or nearly 60 percent of the total, will be among those over the age of 64.  All of this is due to the aging (and increased lifespans) of the immense baby boom generation who were then followed by the relatively tiny baby bust cohort.  This dramatic demographic shift will have a profound economic and social impact on American life just as the birth of the baby boomers transformed America into a child-centered nation during the late 1940s, the 1950s, and the 1960s.

For university admissions officers, the demographic shift means putting together an incoming freshman undergraduate class from a stagnant cohort of undergraduate-age students.  For mayors, this means competing for young working families who can provide a workforce for local businesses and who will pay local taxes.  This dual competition suggests that urban universities and their cities might benefit from focusing on the one young demographic that will grow rapidly — graduate and professional students.  According to the National Center for Education Statistics, a division of the U.S. Department of Education, between 2002-2003 and 2013-2014, those seeking an undergraduate degree will increase in number by 17 percent.  In contrast, the number seeking a post-B.A. professional degree will grow by 25 percent and those seeking a graduate master’s degree will increase by 35 percent.

While many urban universities house a substantial share of their own undergraduates, few schools provide housing for their graduate and professional students.  Normally, well-designed undergraduate residence halls serve to attract students to a particular school, but also serve to take pressure off the local rental housing market.  With a sharp increase in the number of graduate and professional students seeking housing in the private market, rents will likely rise making housing less affordable for the families who live there now.

One novel way for the institutions of higher education in a particular city to house their growing corps of graduate students would be the development of a multi-university graduate student village.  This would especially work in places like Boston where schools including Northeastern, the New England Conservatory, Boston University, Boston College, UMass Boston, Tufts Medical School, the Berklee School of Music, Suffolk University, and Emerson College could combine forces on a large-scale graduate student village close to mass transit convenient to each school.

In the model proposed here, the collaborating universities would be responsible for marketing a high density graduate student residential facility that would be centrally located near public transit, would include commercial and retail space, and have commons areas that could house seminar rooms, a small lecture hall, a large screen video room, and recreational space.   Such a facility might also appeal to young professionals for the first few years after graduate school.

In this model, the village would be developed by a private sector developer and therefore would add no debt to the university’s balance sheet.  Given that graduate students have less interest in living right on campus, the graduate village could be located in an urban location that did not use scarce university land.  The collaborating higher education institutions would not have a financial stake in the development and the facility would remain on the city’s tax rolls.

With the universities aggressively marketing the village to their own graduate students, the developer would likely have close to 100 percent occupancy which should help it attract financing for the project even if the universities do not provide the developer with a master lease. Moreover, unlike undergraduate students, graduate and professional students usually live year round on or near campus.  The need for subleasing during summer months would be minimal.

The village could include efficiencies, singles, doubles, perhaps even some triples … and possibly even some units for married couples with young children.  The village could contain:

— first floor commercial retail space that might include a small supermarket, a dry cleaner, drug store, a sports bar, a small movie theater, etc.

— an underground garage with no more than one rental space per three to five units, but a large Zip Car facility with vehicles ranging from Smart Cars to vans.

— regular programming of seminars, lectures, film festivals, and other cultural attractions for student residents and community neighbors, sponsored by the collaborating universities and colleges.

The combination of a convenient location, attractive apartments, a large array of amenities, the ability to live with students from other schools, and other “village-like” attributes might make this a top residential choice among graduate and professional students.  It would help universities attract students and in taking pressure off the local rental market, presumably garner support from the surrounding community.  And if the village were also open to graduate students after graduation, it might serve to retain young professionals in the city – a major goal over the next decade for big city mayors.  In this case, the village could be a win for graduate students, a win for institutions of higher education, and a win for the mayor and the residents of the city.

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