Soak away essay worries in the hot tub

January 17, 2003

Are private firms the saviours of dilapidated student digs? Stephen Phillips surveys the US move into upmarket apartments.

Unlike the cramped communal living quarters of old, US universities now offer those who can afford it an "accommodation experience" every bit as coddled as that which today's undergraduates have grown up to expect. Gulag-style cafeterias are history, replaced by chic eateries dishing up eclectic cuisine. And services that would not be out of place in a five-star hotel abound.

At Michigan State University, students at America's largest campus community - comprising 21,000 residents - can soak away their cares in a whirlpool bath. Southern Illinois University's Carbondale campus offers stressed students preparing for finals the soothing hands of a complimentary massage therapist. Edging into health-club territory, students at Boston's Northeastern University can avail themselves of the campus's new Marino Recreation Center - all 81,000 square feet of it - replete with basketball courts, workout studios and saunas.

Such developments have been spurred by competition from commercial property owners targeting students, and the need to overhaul old housing stock has stoked something of a student accommodation building boom.

The no-frills connotations of words such as "dormitory" or "halls of residence" do not begin to describe what some campuses have built. In a recently completed $75 million (£47 million) project, Harvard University commissioned architecture firm Machado and Silvetti Associates to design a 235-apartment complex for its business school students. Reflecting its upwardly mobile clientele, the development, which commands sweeping views of Cambridge and Boston, features cork floors and wooden furniture with underground parking for 625 cars.

"We managed to make a building that is very contemporary, [yet] contextual - interpreting the culture of the place without mimicking the design of other buildings," says partner Rodolfo Machado, who is also an architecture professor at Harvard.

However, perhaps the most dramatic trend in US university accommodation is the shift towards personal living space versus previous group cohabitation arrangements.

"If you look at what campuses are constructing these days, they are single-bedroom apartments," says Rita Moser, director of housing at Florida State University.

Boston University provides a typical example. It opened an 817-unit complex at the start of the 2001 academic year, the first phase of a projected 2,300-bed addition to its student village. For $900 a month, each student has his or her own bedroom, a bathroom shared with a neighbour, and the run of a kitchen, dining area and living room. All the units were snapped up within 36 hours of the development's opening.

"We're finding that students are not interested in having to go down the hall for facilities: they want the privacy, convenience and security of having a bathroom in their own apartment," Moser says. At Michigan State, Chuck Gagliana, vice-president of housing and food services, concurs. "Privacy always comes up. The ability to have personal space is a very strong preference."

Students demand it. Today's youngsters, typically raised with few or no siblings, expect nothing less than space to call their own. "They are from smaller families, most had their own bedroom, many their own bathroom - the notion of sharing is foreign to them," Moser says.

And the extra expense of such accommodation does not seem to put people off. Florida State students did not balk at leaning on their parents to splash out $300 more a semester on revamped suite-style accommodation instead of unrenovated dormitories where residents must still traipse down the corridor for their ablutions, she notes.

Cable television is also expected as a matter of course. At Michigan State, cable TV is standard - free for all campus residents, much like a utility. "Cable TV is something (students) had at home. There's no way they're going back to an antenna on the roof and three to four fuzzy channels," Gagliana explains. Cable connections also come in handy to beam closed-circuit footage of lectures directly into students' rooms, he says.

Internet access is ubiquitous in dormitories and institutions such as Ohio University and Northwest Missouri University. Boston's Babson College even throws in a free computer with each room.

Such pampering leads one to wonder whether the social learning mission of universities is not being harmed. After all, why would a student ever leave his or her room when everything they need is inside?

Moser believes something has been lost. "Students who have their own self-contained room find it much easier to avoid being around other people," she laments. "Social interaction is very different to what it was even ten years ago. Staff have to work harder to encourage students to leave their rooms and have face-to-face interaction."

Gagliana is less alarmed. Students still have classrooms, refectories and lounge areas in which to congregate, he notes. In any case, today's market demands such provision. If students' preferences are not met, they may vote with their feet and look off campus for alternatives - particularly now that private student housing complexes have begun springing up in the shadow of campuses.

Florida State has stiff competition from Southgate, a $28.7 million, 536-bed development billed as offering "off-campus living with on-campus convenience". The deluxe dwelling, which offers a full social events calendar and room service, is one of a string of student properties run by Texas-based Asset Campus Housing.

Keeping students on campus is not just a question of maximising revenue, it is also a matter of promoting collegial community and reducing the dropout rate, Gagliana says. "There is a strong academic and social adjustment support system to help students who are away from home for the first time. Many studies have shown that students on campus have much higher grade-point averages than those living off campus."

Then again, giving students what they want does not always seem a good idea. For an extra $300 a year, Michigan State students can buy an unlimited food allowance. Handing 18 to 21-year-olds carte blanche to indulge their appetite for junk food seems to ignore a wider view of their welfare.

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