Enhancing the Student Housing Experience: Inside Campus Apartments’ Strategy
Campus Apartments COO Miles Orth dives into current expectations.
One of the factors contributing to the growing demand for high-quality student housing communities across the country is effective property management that puts the overall college experience at the top.
After conducting a survey among more than 18,000 enrolled college students, the College Student Mental Wellness Advocacy Coalition found that there’s a strong relationship between where students live and their well-being. Those who reported feeling very connected to their residential community were the most likely to laugh and smile, and assessed their mental health as good. Through simple things such as hosting events or social gatherings, property managers can contribute significantly to improving the student housing experience.
After 65 years in the industry and with more more than $2 billion worth of assets under management across 16 states, Campus Apartments Chief Operating Officer Miles Orth knows that accommodation can make or break the college experience. Campus manages roughly 23,000 beds and is constantly evaluating new opportunities to grow its footprint in university real estate. Multi-Housing News asked Orth to talk about what students expect from their housing provider today, and also touch on why communication is key to offering a good living experience.
How much has demand for student housing assets fluctuated lately, and how has Campus Apartments adapted to change?
Orth: The student housing industry remains highly fragmented and also remains one of the most in-demand asset classes in commercial real estate. While some schools are facing enrollment pressure, the large public and major private universities continue to see surging increases in demand.
Demand is broadly decreasing in the Northeast and Midwest and growing in the South and West of the U.S. Arguably, there is more demand for student housing than existing supply at the top universities.
Campus Apartments takes a research- and data-driven approach to all our investments—both in development and acquisitions—as well as with the renovations of our properties. Our long history gives us unique access to student trends over time, and our collection of this information helps inform our view of the space. The broad population of students at universities is looking for the right combination of value and functional amenities.
Please share some details about your current student housing portfolio. How do you choose the markets you want to be in?
Orth: Floorplans at recent Campus Apartments developments include a wide mix of studios, two-, three- and up to six-bedroom units, depending on the specific market we’re looking to appeal to. We don’t restrict ourselves to specific markets or schools. Obviously, we’re carefully reviewing the supply-demand dynamics in any local environment and understanding the risks and downsides to any investment decision. We have great examples of outstanding real estate deals at major, tier-one universities and at small, liberal arts colleges. We don’t feel restricted by location or type of school—only by the market fundamentals.
What trends are you seeing among college students today? What do they expect from their student housing provider?
Orth: When it comes to trends in amenity offerings at a property, we’ve found that those often depend on local factors. Generally, we’ve observed that students have a strong expectation for study spaces, both individual and spaces that accommodate group study sessions with technology that can enhance their experience. All markets also show a desire for students to have indoor/outdoor spaces that can be used throughout the year.
Pet parks or space for a dog to exercise with pet wash stations are also desired. In terms of fitness spaces, residents are looking for spaces that allow for individual and group exercise sessions with video training that can accommodate one or multiple people and focus on a wide variety of areas. Fitness centers that can also expand to outdoor spaces based on the weather are well received, as well. Overall, students consistently prioritize highest managed Wi-Fi and study spaces.
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What strategies work for keeping a pulse on students’ expectations and meeting their needs?
Orth: Campus Apartments focuses considerable time on surveying our residents year-over-year and studying resident responses and trends over time. We believe there is no substitute for hearing directly from our customers and their parents. This includes satisfaction surveys after the completion of service requests and after prospects take tours of our properties. This provides direct, immediate feedback on how we’re doing in the day-to-day operations of our properties.
We also encourage our onsite teams to engage directly with residents and prospects through sponsored events, to bring local businesses such as restaurants to a property to provide food and encourage relationship-building.
What are the most desired amenities today and how are they contributing to the student housing experience?
Orth: There are a lot of studies that reflect current trends in off-campus student housing amenities. Our surveys reflect many of the same preferences over the years, including robust Wi-Fi, study spaces and fitness centers, as well as lower emphasis amenities, including kitchen amenities and laundry. Students want to be free to collaborate and study together and have privacy when they need it. The apartment design needs to emphasize privacy—this is essential for undergraduates and graduate students.
A good college experience is also about giving students a voice and maintaining regular lines of communication with them. How do you engage with your residents?
Orth: We 100 percent agree! We take seriously our role as a housing provider and the fact that we’re housing the young adult children of parents and others who are concerned about the development of their children. Housing is an essential part of the college and life experience, and we feel privileged to be a part of that life journey.
We’re also mindful that we’re helping these college students become responsible future renters and homeowners. We like to communicate every day with our residents. We engage with them through surveys and events in our communities, and we invite them to help others through positive service and ways of giving to the local communities we serve.
Technology is a crucial part of the student experience today. How do you make the most of technology across your properties?
Orth: The team at Campus Apartments is so focused on technology as part of the real estate experience that we invested in a technology company, Campus Technologies Inc., that comprises engineers and innovators who focus on improving the wired and Wi-Fi experiences for college students. This business is owned by David Adelman and serves the needs of Campus Apartments and other student housing operators.
Through CTI, we have been on the cutting edge of the managed Wi-Fi experience for our residents and moved in this direction early on, while most other firms were still dealing with cable modems. Without Wi-Fi, it can be impossible for students to fully access online content, conduct research, upload or download assignments, share documents, attend classes, and take exams—many of which may only be offered online. Everyone needs an equal opportunity to learn, and not every student can afford the fastest alternatives to stay connected, so we have tried to find creative ways to include this at our properties as a part of our objective to ensure equal access across a variety of product types.
In addition, technology has helped us reduce operating costs through increased efficiency. Apartment technology is changing the way we design buildings and providing more comfort with tools like the ability to monitor and control utility services from anywhere.
Considering the current economic slowdown, what are your expectations for the student housing sector?
Orth: There remains steady enrollment growth at the top 200 universities, and the U.S. continues to be a major destination for international students. Current on-campus housing is unable to accommodate the demand, which presents an ongoing need for off-campus housing providers to meet that demand.
Much of the on-campus housing stock remains dated and functionally obsolete—it doesn’t meet the needs of today’s students. We believe that there are many factors that present an ongoing favorable environment for student housing well into the future.
Additionally, the ‘great recession’ and the recent COVID-19 pandemic have proven the early thesis that private student housing was recession-resistant, and is now pandemic-resistant. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the student housing space demonstrated strong performance even when the universities serviced by off-campus housing were substantially disrupted, including when they delivered courses online and sent many on-campus students home.