From Bunk Beds to Lazy Rivers: The Rise of the Luxury College Residence Hall
While working on a new book about the architecture of college dormitories in the United States in the three hundred years before 1968, I could not help noticing a very recent phenomenon: glitzy residences popping up along the edges of campuses. One of the themes of my book is the role played by collegiate officials in shaping student character. I concluded that at several moments in American history, especially as enrollment expanded to include lower socio-economic groups, deans attempted to use dorm-dwelling as a leveler, as a way of encouraging students of different social classes to mingle and find fellowship among their classmates. Fast forward to 2019, when student living includes a vast array of choices, and economic stratification is not only present, but actively on display. Many well-heeled students have come to expect luxury in housing, and many parents are willing to pay. College administrators, real estate developers, and management companies know a lucrative market when they see it. The result: a race, to paraphrase Curbed.com, to provide new residence halls and off-campus apartment complexes, highly equipped, with rents to match.
Let’s review three outrageous examples, one private and the other two university-run. (While striking new dormitories may be on campus or off, the results are similar since they are competing for the same students.) The District on Apache in Tempe, Arizona—designed by Dallas-based Humphreys & Partners, developed by Houston-based Residential Housing Development LLC, completed in 2013—is privately run but wholly directed at students at Arizona State University. It includes a lot of parking, a two-story fitness center, a pro-tour golf simulator, an infrared sauna, an outdoor grilling area, a pool, a hot tub, cabanas, and a resort-inspired lazy river of the sort found in Las Vegas hotels and waterparks. A lazy river is a snake-shaped pool with a slow-traveling current that moves your inner tube just fast enough to be relaxing, but not fast enough to topple your mojito.
At the University of Akron, students in good academic standing can bareknuckle their way through a Fortnight battle in an e-gaming café housed within the Honors Complex, a dorm built for students in the Honors College, designed by Hartford, Connecticut’s JCJ Architecture and completed in 2012. The café is a 1,338-square-foot recreational space on the first floor with top-notch computers, graphics cards, and audio equipment. Gamers can record themselves playing as well as watch others.
Osprey Fountains at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, by the architecture and construction firm Haskell, promotes itself as an all-around microcosm of glamorous college life, with apartments, shops, and recreational facilities of the highest class. Managed by a university that had traditionally been a commuter school, Osprey Fountains opened in 2009 in an aggressive move to bring students to campus. The building houses one thousand students and provides the same number of parking spaces. Within the large structure, there are multiple entertainment areas, including one for karaoke and open-mic nights, another for watching sports on large-screen televisions, and yet another for gaming. There’s a convenience store and a 1950s-themed diner. Further offerings take the student outside: a lazy river (again!), a lap pool, picnic tables, and, for temporary regression to childhood, swings. When the temperature drops in the evening, students can exercise outdoors on a brightly-lit track, tennis court, volleyball court, or putting green.
Here in New Brunswick, New Jersey, we have nothing quite so beguiling, but I did explore two private high-rise blocks near the main campus of my home institution, Rutgers University. I started my tour at Plaza Square Apartments, the one with the most expensive units according to apartments.com. Although I had not realized it ahead of time, it is managed by Graystar, the company that also manages District on Apache. (It was built, however, by a consortium of three New Jersey developers in partnership with the non-profit New Brunswick Development Corporation, on plans by Virginia-based The Lessard Architectural Group, now defunct, and completed in 2004.) At Plaza Square, I was greeted by an eager young man who asked me to wait in a lobby while he prepared for my visit. The only reading material was Architectural Digest. He then took me to the pool. It looked like a standard three-star hotel facility, but since none of the other apartment buildings near campus have water features and the Rutgers pools are always busy, even this banal one could be a real draw. Another major attraction of this property is that, unlike the residence halls at Rutgers, it is dog-friendly, a fact that became evident as I dodged a small pack of French bulldogs.
But that’s not all. The apartments were well-built with high-quality finishes. Every unit has its own washer and dryer. A nice gym, a locker room for packages, fast Wi-Fi throughout the building, and outdoor grills rounded out the amenities. Subletting is strictly forbidden, but leases can be arranged for six months, twelve months, or more. I learned that while the building is not entirely directed at Rutgers folks, it is aimed at “young professionals and students.” The tour-leader guessed that 15% to 20% of the 450 units are occupied by Rutgers students. I volunteered that I was the kind of generous parent who might serve as the guarantor for my child’s lease, and I was told that such an arrangement was common, as long as I could offer evidence of monthly income equal to five times the base monthly rent of $2,500 ($12,500 per month) or the equivalent in liquid assets.
At this point, perhaps observing my bulging eyes and shortness of breath, my tour-leader suggested another property in New Brunswick, also run by Graystar, but far less costly (and lacking a means test.) My walk to SoCam 290 was pleasant, but inside the building, panic and gloom took hold. The representative swatted a fly while a renter begged for a roommate change. “Sorry, I can’t help you,” the answer shot back. “If you need more privacy, put a tension rod between the rooms and drape a blanket over it.” Over their heads, a sign advertised “Largest customer service team equipped to go beyond expectations.” This structure had few niceties other than quartz countertops, a fitness center, and a ping pong table. The so-called “24-hour Coffee Bar” was a derelict Keurig machine. SoCam 290 is nonetheless filled with Rutgers undergraduates. Its key attractions seem to be location and price.
Next, I interviewed Dan Morrison, Executive Director of Residence Life at Rutgers-New Brunswick, whose office is in a temporary building constructed in 1961. Morrison shared his take on the competition posed by luxury dorms. He’s not concerned. Rutgers, unlike many of its peer institutions, exists in a micro-economic climate that does not favor extravagance. New Jersey is a small state: a large percentage of our students could live at home and commute, thus the rental market is not as fierce as it would be at a university in an isolated small town. New Brunswick is a dense urban environment without space for land-gobbling features like rivers, lazy or otherwise. Morrison predicts that future building by Rutgers and near Rutgers will be “nice and new without going overboard.” Furthermore, his impression is that Rutgers is not losing tenants to an entirely new group of outside landlords, but, rather, the students who would have once lived in off-campus houses are now living in off-campus apartment buildings. Morrison thinks the idea of outrageously luxurious residence halls has been exaggerated, even mythologized, by people like me. There are tens of thousands of residence halls, and to focus on a few dozen country club dorms distorts the picture.
Fair enough. But the fact that such elaborate student housing exists at all is worthy of comment. Anyone who attended college before 2000 probably has no direct experience of things that are now standard: full kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances, leather sofas, large screen TVs, single bedrooms with full-size beds, walk-in closets, and rainfall showerheads. Many of today’s students have parents who recall masonry-block walls, group bathrooms, bunk beds, and long corridors. These parents might understandably wonder why colleges feel the need for new dorms.
The answer lies in recruitment. Analysts have carefully tracked the extent to which students use amenities as a deciding factor in choosing a college. In a paper titled “College as Country Club,” the authors, Jacob, McCall, and Stange, explain that “more selective schools have a much greater incentive to improve academic quality since this is the dimension most valued by their marginal students. Less selective schools (particularly privates), by comparison, have a greater incentive to focus on consumption amenities, since this is what their marginal students value” (marginal, presumably, meaning those on the fence about coming, not those admitted off the wait list). Jacob, McCall, and Stange hammer home something no professor really wants to hear: other than at the most competitive schools, like the Ivies and few others, instructional spending achieves nothing for recruitment. Research shows that the “vast majority of colleges appear to have a negative total enrollment response to increases in instructional spending.” Meanwhile, standards for quality in housing have risen dramatically in recent decades, rendering old dorms increasingly unappealing, and for those able to buy their way out, obsolete.
Sadly, the competition for affluent students does precious little for poor and working-class students, especially those who can’t commute from home. At four-year colleges, the cost of room and board has far out-paced inflation, doubling since 1980 (in inflation-adjusted dollars). A recent article in Inside Higher Ed reported that flagship public universities (once the exalted site of social mobility) are now too expensive for even in-state low-income students. Only six out of fifty flagships met affordability benchmarks. This is not an accident or an oversight: state universities go out of their way to recruit wealthy out-of-state students who pay full freight, rather than invest in programs for in-state students of modest incomes.
Sociologists, meanwhile, have studied how the housing market in college towns squeezes poor students—and neighbors. Thomas M. Laidley, for instance, has written that “students can bid up rents in existing market-rate housing by combining their purchasing power through shared accommodations.” With the recent spate of amenity-rich apartment buildings, the effect is more pronounced, especially on people with no connection to the universities. The increase in costly student housing, Laidley notes, has “implications for the provisioning of housing to the low- and middle-income residents of these municipalities, who may not be able to match students’ combined spending power (largely from personal savings, family resources, or federally-guaranteed student loans, both public and private).” “Studentification,” made visible by a glistening tower near you, is the late-arriving younger sibling of gentrification. And, like gentrification, the trend seems to be inexorable.
Worse yet, if the old college officials were right about the social benefits of mixing students in dorms, then all of us lose out.