Ask the Experts

Dorm Debate

Our university is letting private companies build and own the dorms. Shouldn’t the school provide housing?

The student housing debate has raged since colleges first opened. Your question covers a major factor of college life, your housing. With trends in student housing changing, colleges are looking for ways to maximize real estate space and comfort, while making it affordable to build and rent.

A combination of high demand from students and tightening state budgets has forced universities to look towards the private sector for accommodations. Colleges have found that private companies can design and build residence halls far quicker and cheaper than they can themselves. This type of partnership could also free funds for campus facilities such as classrooms, libraries, and laboratories.

A number of public universities have already entered into such partnerships including Arizona State, Portland State, University of California, and the University of Kentucky. One recent major project is the 200-room dorm facility at Terra State Community College in Ohio. Partnering with a private developer has allowed them to add retail space to the residence building, explains Cincinnati real estate agents. Private colleges tend to be smaller and often self-fund their student housing projects.

The recent real estate boom has seen luxury apartments springing up within close proximity to campuses. But these pricey, fully loaded accommodations are aimed at the well off, so colleges need to look at on-campus housing developments once again.

Finding the most cost-effective way to build campus accommodation is now the priority for many academic institutions. Private companies are also increasingly investing their own finances into many of these projects in efforts to make them more attractive to colleges. Other services such as sanitation, laundry, and garbage collection can also be privatized. Third-party management companies take these roles away from the college allowing them to focus on education. In some instances, the property developers are also the landlords with students paying them directly.

Companies often enter into partnerships which include long leases and management contracts, freeing up cash flow for the college. The priority for most institutions is directing funds towards academic requirements and increasing access and affordability for students. Housing is a part of that equation but it exists to help students succeed at college.

Often armed with decades of design and construction experience, private companies can renovate and redevelop tired dorm blocks into quality housing units. Other benefits include keeping to construction deadlines, supervising maintenance, and using their own engineers, architects, contractors and millwrighting firms, sidestepping the university’s procurement procedures.

Dated dorm buildings are often the bane of student life so renovating them carries a three-way benefit to the college, the private developer, and the students. Smaller sleeping spaces with modern conveniences and larger communal areas with relaxation facilities are the current trend in student housing. The aim is to get students out of their rooms and into the social spaces as part of the college community. These modern spaces are designed with glass walls, natural light and quality furnishings to enhance the communal experience.

You may be paying the school for your accommodation but they are likely to be paying the property developer for building and maintaining it.

It’s tangible, it’s solid, it’s beautiful. It’s artistic, from my standpoint, and I just love real estate… Donald Trump.

Suzanne Hite is a former publications editor serving the technology services sector.