The amenities arms race reaches an armistice

In college days of decades past, residence halls looked less like private hotel rooms and more like square boxes with cinderblock walls, writes Jeffrey Selingo for The Atlantic.

Many colleges have faced scrutiny for building what some perceived as luxury amenities at a time when tuition was rising, notes Selingo. The higher ed construction boom was partly fed by the demographic surge of incoming millennial students, he argues.

What your incoming students want from their housing

But now the dust is settling. According to Sightlines, 2015 marked the leanest year for new construction dedicated to residence halls and student services, he reports.

Now, the amenities arms race is coming to an armistice, says Susan Fitzgerald, an associate managing director at Moody's Investors Service.

Georgia State University (GSU) is just one example of the renewed focus on affordable residence halls, writes Selingo. Although much smaller than its spacious apartment-style cousin, University Commons, GSU's Patton Hall has filled up faster than any other building on campus, says Jerry Rackliffe, vice president for finance and administration.

Even campus tours are focusing less on new buildings and more on niche amenities, says Jeff Kallay, chief executive at Render Experiences. The shift may be due to the declining number of high school graduates and the ever-changing tastes of prospective students, notes Selingo.

Institutions may also be less confident that luxurious residence halls boost enrollment and retention numbers, says Kevin McClure, University of North Carolina at Wilmington's assistant professor of higher education.

In fact, EAB research has shown for a few years that luxury residence halls have little to no impact on student retention or outcomes and serve mostly as a recruitment tool for prospective students and their parents, according to John Workman, managing director and facilities researcher at EAB. Now, many institutions are becoming skeptical about the ROI of the investments they made during the amenities arms race, Workman says.

Some argue that the rise of spacious private spaces and fancy amenities actually hurt retention efforts by encouraging students to stay in their room, writes Selingo.

According to the University of Delaware's student survey, it's the communal spaces, like bathrooms and lounges, that help first-year students make friends and build a sense of community. Specifically, EAB's Facilities Forum has found that community-centric residence halls, which emphasize community space over personal space and promote student interactions, boost retention rates and improve learning outcomes.

This is the type of residence hall that all institutions should be investing in, either in conjunction with or in lieu of luxury living spaces, Workman says.

Learn more: How one university promoted student retention with community-centric residence halls

In reality, many students are open to affordable, smaller living arrangements, says Thomas Carlson-Reddig, partner at Little. And many Generation X parents aren't too concerned by older-style dorms, says Kallay.

Although there is a renewed focus on more modest student living spaces, Selingo doubts that the campus barracks of yesteryear will be back anytime soon (Selingo, The Atlantic, 9/8). 

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