NAA Special Report: What Does International Generation Z Want?

A look at the U.S. student housing preferences of Chinese students.
Alan Gao

Alan Gao, CEO, WeHousing.com

Chicago—A session at NAA’s Student Housing Conference & Exposition addressed the U.S. student housing preferences of Chinese students. Alan Gao, founder and CEO of WeHousing.com, took the microphone to share survey insights that may surprise those with preconceived notions about Chinese students’ housing likes and dislikes.

One assumption, he said, might be that Chinese students gravitate toward the most high-end, luxurious student housing. But, in fact, 17 percent of students in his company’s recent survey reported their first choice was inexpensive, off-campus housing. By contrast, only 11 percent indicated a leading preference for the most expensive housing.

Common wisdom might also suggest that “location, location, location” is a primary factor in students’ decisions. Gao noted that for Chinese students, safety is often a more important determinant. But the best-located housing may not always be the safest, he said.

He pointed to the example of Chinese students’ housing choices at the University of Southern California. “Staying close to campus didn’t necessarily mean safe,” he said. “So they gravitated toward housing a bit farther away and in larger buildings.”

Examining the preferences of Chinese students at various large universities that included the University of Minnesota and the University of Illinois, he found students tended to have very different priorities depending on the setting. At some universities, transportation to and around campus rated highest, while at others safety, the community or other factors were tops.

Chinese students are likely to check websites of the housing under consideration, as well as apartment services and campus recommendations. “Negative reviews are widely circulated among the students and continue to have a negative impact for years,” Gao said.

For that reason, he recommends student housing communities not be afraid to acknowledge negative reviews from the comparatively distant past, but also take the time to explain any changes the community has undertaken since those reviews to improve performance.

Gao also examined the issue of language and cultural barriers that may stymie Chinese students. An example is the term “lease,” which many Chinese students find far more difficult to understand than a term like “apartment rental agreement.” Said Gao: “Try to hire a student speaking their language, and give him or her a fee or rent credit in compensation, to serve as a translator or cultural interpreter for Chinese students.”

Gao noted that content marketing efforts may be more effective with Chinese students than with others. Some may read all they can about a community, and then be seen by other Chinese students as thought leaders on the topic of the most desirable communities.

In terms of content, he said, “photos are better than words and video is better than photos.” He advises communities to urge Chinese students to write objective, information-packed articles about the housing that can be posted on social media, where they’re likely to circulate among Chinese students for years. “Have him focus not just on the student housing community itself, but the larger neighborhood around the community,” he said.

Read all our conference coverage.