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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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Student Housing: Education vs. Marketing

— Earlier this year I attended a presentation by the Director of Housing at a major U.S. university. Within the first sixty seconds he made two contradictory claims: (1) he said student housing was all about education; and (2) he said his department had retained a top market-research firm so it would be able to provide students with exactly what they want. He seemed to have no sense that there was anything contradictory in these two competing statements.

This kind of thinking is behind the arms race to provide ever-more-luxurious “amenties” on university campuses, as detailed in this Associated Press story quoted here from today’s North Jersey Record.

Students living large

Friday, September 15, 2006

CHICAGO—Somewhere along the way, college life has gotten a whole lot more posh.

On a number of campuses, students are able to hire personal maids to clean and do their laundry. They pay moving crews to pack and transport their stuff—plasma TVs and other high-end electronics included. And they’re living large in housing that looks like anything but a dorm.

“You know it’s good when your parents walk in the room and say ‘Can I live here?’” says Niki Pochopien, a 21-year-old senior who just moved into swanky new living quarters for students at DePaul University in Chicago.

Known as Loft-Right, the mod-looking structure has all the amenities: expansive city views, granite countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms, modern designer furniture and satellite TV hookups. The lobby lounge—like something out of a hip hotel—has a pool table and fireplace, and soon will have a Starbucks and tanning and hair salons next door.

Living at a place like this isn’t cheap.

Students at Loft-Right each pay more than $1,000 a month for a private bedroom in a two- or four-bedroom unit, with bathrooms shared by no more than two people.

“It dovetails with their vision of what it is to be a grown-up,” says Robert Bronstein, a student housing consultant and president of the Scion Group, which manages the building and university-affiliated residences in other states.

Upscale housing and other perks also fit with some parents’ expectations, especially those whose children attend the priciest private schools.

“It makes the $40,000 tuition worth it,” says Brian Altomare, the 25-year-old president and founder of Madpackers, a Manhattan-based moving company for students.

This fall, his company added one-off limousine rides so student customers can arrive at school “like a rock star.” The company also plans to offer grocery delivery and cleaning and laundry services—something other companies, such as Valet Today and DormAid, already do.

At East Coast schools, DormAid charges $60 for a two-hour room clean and about $40 to wash and fold three bags of laundry. Madpackers’ rates start at $289 for an in-state move, with extra charges for packing services and supplies and the limo trips.

Students who take advantage of the perks tend to shrug off comments from college alumni who scoff at the pampering they never had.

“Going to school today and living as a young adult in this world is completely different than when they grew up. What could be looked at as spoiled for them, is not necessarily spoiled for us,” says Josh Hoffman, a 19-year-old sophomore in New York University’s jazz performance program. He took a Madpackers limousine to school this semester.

“I just feel like we have so much, with technology and computers. We have everything at our hands,” he says. “It’s just a matter of choosing.”

Many students say housing amenities, in particular, play a big role when deciding which school to attend.

That worries some education watchdogs, who believe the focus on living the good life is driving up the already burdensome cost of college—and causing some students to ask for more grants and rack up more debt than they normally would.

“Students and school employees are living in increasing luxury while taxpayers are getting soaked,” says Neal McCluskey, a policy analyst for the Center for Educational Freedom at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank.

Still others think there’s something to be said for basic communal living, especially for underclassmen.

“The traditional college dormitory with two students to a room and a bathroom and common room down the hall is a pretty good way of getting students out of their rooms and away from their computers,” says Tom Kepple, president of Juniata College, a liberal arts school in Huntingdon, Pa. “In this environment, it’s pretty hard to avoid getting to know your fellow students and how to live in a community.”

Some students agree.

“It’s a crash course in conflict resolution,” says Renita Young, a 20-year-old senior at DePaul who started off in a cramped dorm and only recently moved to Loft-Right. She feels she’s earned the perk.

That said, many residents in her building are freshmen and sophomores—which Bronstein, the developer, takes as a sign of increasing demand. Now he’s ready to move on to his next project: a “Club Med for students” at Illinois State University that will have outdoor volleyball and hot tubs, as well as plasma TVs in every unit.

“The cat’s out of the bag,” he says. “Nobody’s going to build a new building with community bathrooms. It just won’t happen.”

Sarah English, director of housing and residential life at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., also believes universities have no choice but to upgrade housing. Her school recently added upscale townhouses for students.

But even she drew the line when she heard officials at some colleges were replacing standard-issue twin mattresses—long a rite of passage in dorm life—with full-sized beds.

Her thought on that: “Are you kidding me?”

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