Student Suites Student Suites - Innovative Student Housing
JANUARY 29, 2013
Dorms becoming norm for community colleges

BENTON TOWNSHIP - Community colleges are learning they need to provide more than high-quality academics to attract students, which is one reason why more are getting into the on-campus housing business.

For Southwestern Michigan College President David Mathews, the construction of SMC’s first 130-bed housing unit in 2009 reflected a need that surfaced in the college’s surveys of high school juniors.

“Despite the fact we had affordable access to high-quality education, we had a lot of students that weren’t considering us,” Mathews said.

For Dick Davis, whose company, Student Suites, specializes in campus housing projects, the growing willingness of community colleges to take the housing plunge is significant.

“Once they’ve operated (housing) for a year or two, they fall into the routine rather nicely,” Davis said. “Five or 10 years down the road they’re going to be happy they did that.”

Davis will help Lake Michigan College build a 200-room dorm at its Napier Avenue campus. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014. There is room for a second dorm in the future.

The first step came Tuesday, when LMC board members authorized creating a nonprofit corporation to finance the project with floating tax-exempt bonds.

“This is just another piece of how we are working to transform the region,” LMC President Robert Harrison said. “The foundation for advancing our region is through education. It is imperative that the college do all it can to be a center for education and a place of discovery for people of all ages.”

Michigan Community College Association President Mike Hansen has yet to hear of a downside from two-year institutions that have embraced on-campus housing.

“They’re all very happy. It’s helped drive right the kind of enrollment, meaning full-time students actively pursuing a degree. It’s made a positive impact on their campuses,” he said.

The SMC experience Southwestern Michigan College’s research in 2006 focused on high school juniors living within 30 minutes of the Dowagiac campus.

Initial results suggested that students saw community college as a more affordable option, “but, for too many, we were not going to be where they came to school,” President Mathews said.

The responses were more positive when students were asked, “What if we provide affordable access to a total college life experience that included on-campus housing that involved clubs and organizations?”

“We learned that affordable access to classes was not enough for those people,” Mathews said.

SMC’s construction also coincided with rapid growth, especially from 2006 to 2010, when enrollment increased by roughly 60 percent, Mathews said.

Another indicator came last fall, when the college built its second 130-bed dorm - and found itself facing “an unacceptably long” waiting list of 80 people, Mathews said.

A third 130-bed building will open this fall. There’s space for a fourth one, if needed, “but we don’t want to grow for growth’s sake,” Mathews said “We will not grow beyond where we can provide personal, caring services.”

A changing focus

Hansen believes the trend toward student housing reflects the latest historical change in what community colleges do.

“The experiences of community colleges have just evolved with the times - from junior colleges, with a very academic focus, to ‘transfer mission’ schools, where students do their first two years and transfer,” he said.

Once a community college establishes itself, its offerings and programs are always changing to meet local needs, Hansen said.

“Housing is the same thing. Where there’s a local need, and it fits the culture and needs of that institution, it happens,” he said.

As an example, Hansen cites Gogebic Community College in the Upper Peninsula city of Ironwood, which is one of Student Suites’ recent projects.

“The only other option (students) would have is Michigan Tech or Northern Michigan University, which are three hours away,” Hansen said.

The LMC experience LMC’s decision has been long in coming.

Student Suites first helped LMC look at student housing five years ago, but the college didn’t feel ready to proceed, Davis said.

“Last year we picked it back up again - just assisted in putting together what it could look like, what it could bring to the campus.”

To help its initial research, Students Suites hired Danter & Associates of Columbus, Ohio, Davis said. Danter looked at many factors, including the area’s housing options, rents and vacancy rates.

Danter completed its study last summer, and LMC also did online surveys of student attitudes to on-campus housing.

The results persuaded LMC to go ahead, but they weren’t the only factor in its decision.

“You want to make sure the market is there, the rents you’re charging are within range, and that it would be attractive (to students),” Davis said

The driving factors Davis and Mathews see several factors behind community colleges’ willingness to offer student housing.

Finances, of course, are one factor.

With students in America accumulating roughly $1 trillion in debt, community colleges are a less-expensive option to a four-year school. And providing housing is one way of making a total college experience more affordable.

“Things changed a lot when one or both parents lost their jobs,” Mathews said. “Things changed a lot when the housing market collapsed, and there was no longer the ability to take out home equity loans to support your student’s college education.”

The types of students that a community college wants, and how they’ll be living, also play a part.

“A lot of community colleges are trying to attract foreign students, or students from specialized programs, and they aren’t always from the local area,” Davis said. “They need a place to live.”

Many parents also prefer to see their children in an on-campus, supervised atmosphere rather “than in an off-campus apartment,” he added.

For those reasons, Davis tells clients to keep one thing in mind, especially if they’ve never had housing before.

“They’re going to be surprised how many students will want to come that have not been able to come before,” Davis said. “A lot of clients think they’re building for the students that they have, but that’s really not the case.”

The intimacy of a community college environment definitely helps in closing the deal, Mathews believes.

“There’s a reason that people use the phrase, ‘small liberal arts college.’ There’s a familiarity that, if you’re huge, you lose,” he said.