Part of the ritual of returning to college at this time of year used to mean giving up the comforts of home, particularly the cozy private bedroom that is such a staple of American teenage life, and moving into a campus dormitory that was almost architecturally indistinguishable from public housing. Even at elite schools, rooms were the size of jail cells, beds were stacked like cordwood, and amenities consisted of a dresser and a desk. This was considered perfectly normal. Universities, after all, originated as monastic centers.
Plenty of Spartan dormitories still exist, especially at prestigious liberal arts schools that can have their pick of the litter, but they are quickly going the way of the paper textbook. Today’s student accommodations are being built to resemble the kind of apartments you would find in a new urban high-rise. It’s not unusual for a suite in one of these upscale dorms to include individual bedrooms with private baths and kitchens equipped with a full complement of stainless steel appliances—dishwashers and the obligatory granite countertops included. When admissions officers describe “amenities” to incoming students, their list now includes things like flat-screen televisions and tanning salons. At Drexel University, students are lining up for places in a new, privately built dorm designed by Robert A. M. Stern Architects, a firm known for its Hamptons beach houses and a fabulously expensive apartment building on Central Park West. Besides stunning views of the Philadelphia skyline, full-size beds, and some duplex units, its residents will have access to a private gym with a golf-course simulation room and a 30-seat screening room for practicing presentations—or holding Superbowl parties.
How can student housing be going up-market at the exact moment when we are having a national freak-out over rising college costs and the staggering amounts of student debt? Such financial concerns don’t seem to have deterred schools from peppering their campuses with lavish new dorms. Just the opposite. Building student housing has become a big business, and most of the new construction is being done by private developers. Those companies have been responsible for 20 percent of new college housing since 2012, a recent survey of 40 schools found.
The scramble to upgrade college dorms began as a response to changing demographics. Despite everything you hear about the record numbers of applicants for elite schools, in many parts of the country, the pool of college-bound high school students is flat or shrinking. If you subtract those students who can’t afford a residential school, the market becomes even tighter. The result is a growing competition for students, especially for the top-scoring, high-achieving kind. Schools figure that if they can offer commodious, well-appointed living quarters, they’ll have a better chance of winning over top prospects. “Housing is a great recruiting tool,” says Doug Brown, of Capstone On-Campus Management, one of several developers who specialize in the lucrative student housing business. Many of Capstone’s recent projects have been for public institutions—Appalachia State University in North Carolina, Queens College in New York City. Brown tells administrators that nice dorms are especially crucial for attracting international students who pay full freight. All that explains the growing “amenities war,” adds James Baumann, a spokesman for the Association of College and University Housing Officers.
But it’s not just rich foreigners who want five-star accommodations. So many American kids have grown up cocooned in their own bedrooms, often with their own bathroom, that the idea of sharing a tiny room with a stranger seems deeply unpleasant. These singletons are even less keen on trekking down the hallway to the common bathroom (especially now that so many are gender-neutral). College officials estimate that 60 percent of their applicants have never shared a bedroom. So when they commission new student housing, the goal is bigger units, more private bedrooms and a lot more social space. Very few new dorms are being built with common showers, even though it’s the more economical way to go. In the typical dorm suite, one bathroom for every two students is now the standard ratio.
Another reason for the luxification of college housing is a bureaucratic shift. Administration officials once managed everything on campus, from the English faculty to the janitors, until they realized they could save money by outsourcing the non-academic stuff. It’s much easier to lease a piece of campus land to a developer than to undertake an arduous fund-raising campaign to pay for a new dorm. It’s also 20 percent cheaper: Private companies are able to shave $16,000 off the per-bed cost in their student residences. The most appealing part of the arrangement is that schools get new housing without putting the debt on their books—leaving more money, in theory, for academic programs.
Companies like Capstone and American Campus Communities, which built the Drexel dorm, will also happily manage the student housing, sparing administrators from having to deal with noisy parties and the famously heavy wear-and-tear on furnishings. To convince students to pay more for a room in a private dorm, developers pile on the amenities. Swimming pools. Game rooms. Fire pits. Outdoor grills.
While the rent is usually higher, students may actually get a better deal than they would in regular campus housing. Take the example of Allie Caren, a Syracuse University senior who lives in the deluxe University Village complex on the school’s south campus. After sharing a “dilapidated” room in a ’60s-era, cinderblock-walled, university dorm during her sophomore year, she convinced her parents that the overall tab would be roughly the same at the developer-built complex.
She now pays $10,690 for the school year, about $2,000 more than what the university charged. But for the price, Caren gets her own bedroom and in-room bath in a four-person suite with a shared kitchen, living room, and washer-drier. Since she cooks all her meals, she was able to give up her meal plan and save nearly $3,000 a year. She feels she’s getting more for her money. “I have a full-size bed, a four-drawer dresser,” she enthuses. “When you’re going to a private school and paying $56,000 a year,” she adds, “I just feel you should get AC with that.”
At those rents—about $4,000 a month for a four-person suite—you can imagine that the student housing developers don’t come out too badly, either. Although schools have perfectly good economic reasons for wanting to get out of the housing business, the trend isn’t without consequences for campus life. Students who can afford to live in private enclaves are effectively segregating themselves from the have-nots who are still stuck in the crappy dorms. It also allows them to continue living in the well-feathered cocoon of their teenage years well into their twenties.
Eventually, a generation raised in private bedrooms and private dorm rooms will have to venture out into a world where entry-level jobs that can support $1,000-a-month rents are increasingly rare. How will they react to that first, grotty post-college apartment and sharing space with an annoying roommate? If it doesn’t work out, at least there is always that cozy bedroom back home.
Inga Saffron is the architecture critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her @ingasaffron.