Swinging Pendulum

Student housing design is shifting away from luxury amenities more geared toward recreation than studying to condensed living spaces and education-oriented common areas, marking a return of focus to efficiency, affordability and practicality.
Editorial Director Suzann D. Silverman
Editorial Director Suzann D. Silverman

It’s back to basics for student housing. Luxury amenities more geared toward recreation than studying are giving way to condensed living spaces and education-oriented common areas. In effect, it marks a reversal of the pendulum, a return of focus to the efficiency, affordability and practicality that marked traditional student living quarters.

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Conditions are conspiring to cause this shift: For developers, the challenges include rising construction costs and land shortages. College students and their parents face ever-increasing tuition due to growing competition for matriculation, to say nothing of increased room-and-board costs. Universities are striving to squeeze more students into limited space. Resulting solutions can benefit everyone.

The difficulties are not likely to lessen anytime soon. While some smaller private and lower-tier colleges are suffering decreased applications and in a number of cases merging or closing, the national application pool is rising, and is likely to continue to do so in the near term, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Total undergraduate enrollment actually decreased 7 percent from 2010 to 2016, but that was off of a 37 percent boom in the prior decade that brought enrollment to a record 18.1 million students, according to the department’s National Center for Education Statistics. It forecasts a 3 percent increase from 2016 to 2027, although there is some debate as to whether the recent drop in the birth rate will result in some level of enrollment decline after that.

While student housing providers are re-emphasizing space maximization, though, it comes at a time of greater creativity and flexibility in use of space. Given the large number of people necessary to fit into a defined space and the uniform nature of student requirements, the sector is a natural place for such experimentation. Alternatives Holly Dutton describes in “Innovations in Student Housing” compare more than favorably with my late-’80s on-campus graduate school housing, which featured double studios, each with a standard desk, dresser and shelving unit, along with a bed that pushed in to serve as a sofa, with a shelf hidden behind the sofa’s cushioned back. These were convenient, but pale by comparison with emerging space-saving options.

Now, as the parent of a high school student, I am particularly interested in how creative use of space is being combined with an emphasis on practicality. When it comes time for college, I would far rather provide my child with study options than an in-dorm swimming pool, though I’d also rank comfort and a pleasant environment high on my list of priorities (along with safety, of course). To achieve these goals and have the housing be affordable, too—that’s the new holy grail.