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Here to Stay? More Colleges Invest in Student Housing

By Corey Murray

Looking to meet the evolving needs of students, more community colleges consider adding on-campus housing. But such investments are not without risks.

Used to be that when students talked about packing up and moving away to college, they meant to a four-year school. Community colleges were viewed almost exclusively as commuter institutions; most didn’t even have dormitories. But that landscape is changing.

Administrators are considering ways to redesign the community college experience in order to meet students’ ever evolving needs, and on-campus housing is a hot topic at many of the nation’s two-year, career and technical colleges.

While some colleges have formed exploratory committees to vet the possibility of using existing land for student housing, others have forged ahead with ambitious plans, in some cases investing tens of millions of dollars in capital to erect dormitories, new dining halls and other accommodations for students in search of a more traditional college experience.

In Minnesota, at least three community colleges — Central Lakes College, Minnesota West Community and Technical College, and Northland Community and Technical College — have either approached the state or are considering proposals to build dorms on campus, according to a recent report on Minnesota Public Radio — this in a state where some 40 percent of community colleges already offer student housing.

“You come here in the evenings, and there are people hanging out outside — playing catch or just studying,” Jenny Odland, who has worked on housing projects at Minnesota’s Alexandria Technical and Community College, told MPR. “You wouldn’t have seen that before.”

Building for the future

Nationally, the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) estimates that about a quarter of community colleges currently offer some form on on-campus housing. But those estimates do not represent a complete sampling.

AACC associate vice president for research and student services Kent Phillippe told MPR that more community colleges are considering housing. Many of the colleges are small or mid-size institutions, and most are in rural areas, where commuting is not always convenient for students.

Students and parents are much more in tune with housing than they ever were.

“Students and parents are much more in tune with housing than they ever were,” Tom Wacholz, president of ORB Management, a developer of student housing projects, told MPR. What’s essential, Wacholz says, “is integrating the academic institution with the housing. It’s all about student life.”

Beyond Minnesota

In upstate New York, dormitories are a fairly common feature on community college campuses. The Albany Business Review reports that Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) is currently considering proposals from developers for a new student housing project.

If the plan goes through, HVCC would become one of several community colleges in the region that offer student housing, joining SUNY Adirondack, which reportedly has a 400-bed facility, as well as Schenectady County Community College (SCCC) and Fulton-Montgomery Community College (FMCC), both of which opened student housing facilities in 2012, according to the Business Review.

So far, results have been mixed. While SCCC and FMCC dorms currently operate at 100 percent capacity and have waiting lists, the Glen Falls Post-Star reports that dorm occupancy at SUNY Adirondack has dropped in recent semesters, with up to 20 percent of the beds going unclaimed by students. The attrition could be attributed to a decrease in overall enrollments at the college, which is another potential variable that all colleges must consider.

Concept to reality

The ways in which community colleges choose to pursue these projects are often as diverse as the students who live in the dorms. As MPR points out, a college could choose to build and run its own housing project on existing land or purchase new land for development. HVCC, for example, is considering razing existing buildings and replacing them with dormitories.

Colleges can either make the capital investment internally through a foundation or work with an investor to fund the project. Often, institutions hire management companies to run the facilities once they’re open, reports MPR.

Any way you go, it’s a heady investment. Projects can cost $20 million or more, according to news accounts. And you can expect at least some of those costs to be passed on to students.

Are dormitories an option for your community college?

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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