Being a college student is a lot comfier than it used to be. This fall, many of the undergrads settling into their campus dwellings will find themselves in buildings far better appointed than the ones that now-graying alumni once called home. These students are the beneficiaries of a generation of construction that has spawned ritzy new dorms and other facilities at many colleges, as well as, more infamously, such amenities as rock-climbing walls and lazy rivers.
At some schools, the building continues. “The vision is to develop the coolest, hippest, most compelling destination in downtown,” the president of Emerson College, in Boston, told Architectural Digest last year when discussing a project that includes a new cafeteria and dorm. Meanwhile, at Arizona State University, a new residence hall for engineering students has 3-D printers, a fitness center, and Wi-Fi that can handle multiple devices per student.
Campus living has entered a new era. For most of the history of American higher education, dormitories were not particularly comfortable, or even plentiful. “Well through the 19th century, even at small liberal-arts colleges that gave a lot of lip service to the idea of a residential college, students usually boarded in neighboring houses,” said John Thelin, an education scholar at the University of Kentucky. “Very few colleges had the money to build complete dormitories for all their students.”
Thelin, the author of A History of American Higher Education, told me that the number of on-campus beds increased when some universities received more public funding and put much of it toward building housing in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when the college-going population started to increase rapidly. But the new dorms still weren’t very nice. “If someone today were to go back in time, they would find the dormitories very spartan, even at the prestigious colleges,” Thelin said. It was typical for these “lean and ascetic” accommodations to have two or three students to a bedroom and to have communal bathrooms and showers shared by 20 or 30 students. “I can’t think of any place that thought in terms of student comfort,” he said. “At most, they would add a common study area, or a house library, or something like that.”
In the mid-’80s, a confluence of factors led colleges to compete more intensely for enrollees, and they began orienting themselves more toward the desires of students. “You have upper-middle-class families visiting a campus, and parents are saying, ‘My goodness, we’re paying this amount of money for tuition for our son or daughter, and they’re living in this nondescript place,’ [one] that may not be well maintained,” Thelin said.
The rationale for building fancier dorms and rolling out plush amenities is that doing so might entice prospective students—especially those who can afford to pay full tuition—in a competitive higher-education market. But it’s not clear that this reliably pays off. Kevin McClure, a professor of higher education at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, calls this the “If you build it, will they come?” question. “I don’t know that there is that much in the way of empirical evidence that directly says, ‘By building new facilities, you necessarily attract more students,’” he told me. Arriving at such a determination, he said, would require clearly defining what counts as luxurious (granite countertops? nickel finishes?) and data that track the presence of those features in the nation’s dorms. Neither a straightforward definition nor such a specific data set exists.
There is some evidence that prospective students discriminate between schools based on how nice their campuses are. The authors of a 2015 study looking at colleges’ spending found that “many students do appear to value college consumption amenities,” and in particular that wealthier students seemed to be “much more willing to pay for consumption amenities.” However, McClure said, there aren’t conclusive—or granular enough—data pointing to a causal link between building fancy dorms and achieving enrollment goals.
Besides, he articulated a bunch of reasons colleges build new dorms that don’t have to do with wooing amenity-hungry students: Some schools need to accommodate growing student bodies. Some are trying to transition from commuter campuses to residential campuses. Some conclude that having students live on campus will increase retention and improve academic outcomes, so they may require, say, first-year students to do so—which means increasing the number of beds.
And when there’s new construction, the resulting dorm will almost definitely look different from what people who went to college decades ago were accustomed to. “We would never expect that if we were building a new airport, we would build it the same way that we built airports 30 years ago,” McClure said. “Some of the things that we say, ‘Oh my gosh, look at the luxury and look at the amenities!’—I don’t know that all of the things are necessarily luxurious or amenities. I think that they just reflect that there have been changes in what people expect from housing.”
Still, some colleges build nicer buildings than they need to, said Brian Mitchell, a former president of Bucknell University and a co-author of How to Run a College. I asked Mitchell what he’d advise if I were in charge of a school that was losing a lot of students to top-tier competitors—should I invest in housing? “I think there are other places you could better spend your money,” he said. Maybe invest instead in differentiating some academic programs from those at other institutions, he suggested.
Of course, college leaders are often beholden to economic forces beyond their control. For instance, McClure noted, private developers pitching high-end off-campus apartments can set a standard of living that schools feel compelled to match. “If a [university] wants to keep a certain percentage of its students on campus, it has to compete with those private off-campus providers,” he said.
Relatedly, McClure pointed out that when schools can’t afford to build a dorm on their own, they often turn to private developers to finance the project, which sometimes means handing over a certain amount of control. With that control, developers might elect to build accommodations that students can be charged higher rates for—which lets the developers recoup their costs more quickly.
It’s not exactly clear that this escalation of amenities actually improves the college experience. John Thelin told me that in every era of higher education, the students’ written accounts that he’s studied dwell on the social world they created—one that existed apart from administrators’ directives and expectations. The setting was always secondary to the meaning created there. “It could be in a really extravagant building, but it could also be in a very humble one,” Thelin said of the spaces in which lasting memories were formed. Somewhere along the path to today’s comfy campuses, it seems this point got lost.
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