No Place Like Home . . .

New housing options on regional campuses give students more of what they want—but what they want is changing, too.

Universities compete for students on a lot of levels, from curriculum to research interests to distinguished faculty and social-life options. But one aspect that rarely seems to shed its competitive zeal is student housing. 

That’s a good thing for students (who have proven eager to trade higher costs for more inviting digs), enrollment officers, construction companies and sub-contractors, all of whom must bring their A-game to the design, construction and operation of modern residential life on campus.

Driven by the lifestyle concerns of younger students, the very concept of “residence hall” has changed significantly since most working-age Americans were still in college. You can see that in this region with new facilities on the campuses of each major research institution in the region, and on small-college college and university campuses, as well.

In Lawrence, for example, the University of Kansas recently took the wraps off of the $51 million Cora Downs Hall, which accommodates 545 residents, both upper-classmen and freshmen. Unlike the cookie-cutter housing blocks of old, it offers four room designs, including private bedrooms, and will have a new dining center. Soon to come is the new, 700-bed Stouffer Place apartment complex, which complements renovations of several traditional residence halls. 

The bottom line, said Sarah Waters, director of student housing at KU, is that “we are not done yet. We still have a couple of projects planned.” By the time the looming renovation of 50-year-old Oliver Hall is complete, KU will have no residential facility that wasn’t built or remodeled within the past generation. That’s significant, Waters said, because of the expect-ations that students today have for on-campus living.

“The trend is that students are looking for more convenience, but they’re also look-ing for privacy and flexibility,” she said, “so we have increased the number of single and private bedrooms, doubling the number of all private bedroom units,” Waters said.

And for those students wo are seeking something closer to off-campus housing—but still in the heart of the campus—the university’s new Stouffer Place apartments will feature private bedrooms, private
baths, and a dishwasher and washer and dryer in the unit. The complex itself will have a fitness room, rec room and barbecue grills, much like a market-rate apart-ment in a big city.

Hard Choices

In Manhattan, Kansas State recently opened the eight-story Wefald Hall, housing about 540 students in one- and two-student traditional and private rooms. It also has multiple single-use bathrooms on each floor, rooms clustered dedicated study space in common areas on each floor. In the units, there’s a microwave in each room, plus bed, dresser and desk. 

Sleeping accommodations have been scaled back to provide other amenities that students crave during waking hours: 24-hour front desk, computer lab, study rooms, rooms for music, TV and games, a community kitchen on each floor, and a con-venience store, coffee shop/bakery, and adjacent after-hours restaurant.

“It’s a community space that enhances students’ coming together and having a place to gather,” said Derek Jackson, assistant vice president of student life. While that’s important to students, he said, “when it comes to privacy vs. gathering space, you have to make a choice.” The ebbs and flows he’s seen in 30 years in that field must yield to an imperative, he said: education and student develop-ment.

“Sometimes, you don’t want to give students everything they ask for,” Jackson said. “If everyone lives in private suites, what kind of interaction are you promoting?”

Within that are elements of a broader strategy to address a problem facing all uni-versities student   retention. As freshmen, Jackson said, “you want them transitioning to spend more time in their communities; as they get older and are asking for more privacy, they have already established their networks, and have fewer challenges with socialization and networking.”

The Cost-Benefit Balance

Even the University of Missouri in Columbia, which shuttered residence halls as enrollment fell after 2015, is pushing ahead with upgrades, replacing some of that stock with new units. The most recent to come on-line is Lucille Bluford Residence Hall, recently named in honor of the long-time Kansas City newspaper publisher. It offers community-style double and single rooms for nearly 280 students, and plenty of digital access that they crave.

At the University of Missouri-Kansas City, nearly a decade has passed since the bland apartment towers on Oak Street were replaced with Johnson Hall and Oak Place, both of which came on the heels of Oak Street Hall. Combined, they give the university updated accommo-dations for nearly 1,400 students. 

Although that portion of the university’s capital budget has been met, private development adjacent to the campus is adding additional residential options. On the west side, a Whole Foods Market is coming to UMKC via a mixed-use project on a three-acre site. Atop the market will be five stories of luxury apartments. In addition to a six-story parking garage, the project will include university offices for its Counseling, Health and Testing Center. 

And on the east side of the campus, new options for Catholic students at both UMKC and Rockhurst University are expected to open this fall in the STFX project that is giving new life to the former St. Francis Xavier grade school.

The tricky part of all this, student-living executives say, is balancing the cost consider-ations of moder-nization. 

“That’s something we’re  constantly looking at,” said Waters. “We’re an auxiliary of the university, so we’re funded by the room rates we bring in—there’s no state money as part of the formula. We need to fill those spaces, but also to be reasonable about larger spaces and how much square footage you need to feel comfortable.”

The arms-race aspect of it all, said Jackson, is a con-cern, especially with nearly 70 percent of K-State’s stu-dents hailing from in-state. “If we’re not watching the value or cost of education, we’re going to price ourselves out of reach of many of those students,” he said.

 So the focus is split between building some new units, and rehabbing older buildings that still have solid structural fundamentals and operating systsems. Given the cost of new construction, that’s especially important after adding roughly 500 to 800 students each year for a decade. “You have to manage your infrastructure well,” Jackson said, “to keep prices competitive with what students and families can pay.”