Illustration by: Michael Glenwood
Michael Glenwood

While sporadic protests at universities and colleges across the nation have dominated headlines in recent months, the overwhelming challenges associated with student housing remain a constant. Increased enrollment, competition for federal financial aid, rising tuition costs, and a scarcity of affordable housing all create unfathomably difficult circumstances for far too many students. In 2013, according to a survey report by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, more than 58,000 students on college campuses nationwide self-identified as homeless.

“Tuition and academic fees have increased, but what is most overlooked is the dramatic increase in living costs over the last decade or so,” says Katharine Broton, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin and member of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which produces translational research aimed at improving equitable outcomes in post-secondary education. “But the problem extends beyond outright homelessness to include unstable access to safe and secure housing. There are no systematic nationwide data on the extent of housing insecurity or its impact on rates of college completion. One reason may be the persistent misperception that college students are inherently couchsurfers, not likely to care much about a stable place to live.” (When news of a student who converts a van into living quarters goes viral, in other words, it’s his resourcefulness at the center of the story rather than the circumstances necessitating it.)

Broton says the architecture and design community is poised to play a role in helping colleges offer income-diverse housing to fit the needs of today’s college students: “This is an opportunity for architects to be innovative while meeting the needs of a community.”

Variant market demands make this a tall order, especially given that student housing projects represent a viable niche for private developers. At many Florida schools, such projects are marketed as lavish vacation retreats. One of these projects, University Park, which was recently constructed to serve Florida Atlantic University students in Boca Raton, includes 598 bedrooms in 159 suite-style units and features a two-story clubhouse and student lounge, a 24-hour fitness center with a yoga studio, a video gaming room, a sprawling swimming pool, barbecue grills, and hammocks.

The housing market is vastly different on the West Coast. In Berkeley, Calif., considered the most expensive U.S. college town by Realtor.com, students are struggling to find low-cost housing while the University of California, Berkeley, like many other schools across the country, is turning to developer–driven solutions.

“UC Berkeley is the biggest single landowner in downtown Berkeley, and has developed a lot of off-campus student housing. But they are in the process of switching from in-house control of design by hiring architects directly, to instead selecting developer teams who bring their architects with them,” says Erick Mikiten, AIA, principal of Mikiten Architecture, a five-person Berkeley-based firm focused on local sustainable housing solutions. “This has been financially necessary due to the lack of development funds available, and is becoming the standard process for all campus buildings—not just housing. This is a trend on other campuses around the country, and should be a real concern for neighbors and alumni who are proud of their school’s great building stock, which is the case for many universities. From a few upcoming projects I’ve seen, design quality is going down while private developers step in to profit.”

With the price of housing in the Bay Area skyrocketing, and with the continued boom of Silicon Valley and the expansion of the tech industry into San Francisco, “the Berkeley housing market is feeling the squeeze,” says Mikiten. “It’s a challenge for students tapped out by rising tuition costs to then compete with wealthy tech commuters willing to pay whatever it takes to live close to a BART station.”

Mikiten paints a somewhat grim picture of how this has panned out for students, with private developers producing apartments with bedrooms just large enough for people to double up in so that four students will share a two-bedroom apartment, or six will go in on a three-bedroom unit. “Living like that makes everyone feels crammed in,” he says, adding that many projects misallocate the use of common spaces that often become empty rooms adjacent to a laundry facility in the back of the building and “telltale emblems of the lack of community in these buildings.”

Mikiten was recently involved in the design of a privately developed marketrate alternative for student housing that features practical common spaces and small private bedrooms. A block from the Berkeley campus, the Metropolitan, which opened for the 2014–15 school year, includes 163 separately rented bedrooms in 45 units, each with refrigerators and microwave ovens but no ranges. “Students often eat out, and when they cook it’s usually simple microwave, rice cooker, or toaster oven food,” says Mikiten.

Large common spaces were designated on each floor with commanding views of San Francisco Bay and feature three larger shared kitchens with complete cooking setups with high-end appliances and other amenities. While others might write off the inclusion of high-end kitchens for students as frivolous, Mikiten reports that the Metropolitan’s are well-used, the students love them, and they serve a central role in fostering a sense of community for residents within the Bay Area’s larger thriving urban environment.

“The point in all of this is that we have to rethink urban living for students. We have to recognize that a vibrant urban setting has food, entertainment, and other amenities that are right outside the door,” says Mikiten. “By creating buildings designed for social interaction, we can create better, smaller units that house more people in an ever-tightening market.”

Social Circles

Social interaction has always been a fundamental part of any flourishing academic community, and, fortunately, many institutions still recognize this fact. “The advent of the amenity-rich privately developed off-campus student housing model has created a class system and stratification between the haves and have-nots,” says Pamela Delphenich, FAIA, a Boston-based education practice leader for Gensler and former director of campus planning for MIT and Yale. “Some institutions are ‘deluxifying’ and leaning towards more mixed use in order to promote a better academic community. We are seeing more mixed-use projects with design that is integrating academic space and collaborative work areas with residential space.”

Most schools, according to Delphenich, “believe in the power of the residential experience and want their campuses to remain vital, so they are trying to make it more affordable, despite higher costs. Many feared that the residential experience was a thing of the past. Interestingly, quite the opposite seems to be happening.”

Delphenich reports that many institutions realize how important the residential experience is to mitigating the potential isolation of online (and solitary) learning. Some schools are implementing mandatory on-campus living for two years to help maintain a vibrant campus culture.

“At smaller schools, residential numbers are approaching enrollment numbers, and many larger schools are aggressively constructing residential buildings to provide more of the residential experience,” she says. Delphenich points to Northeastern University in Boston, which was traditionally a commuter school until the university made an institutional commitment to downsize, provide a robust residential experience, and become a top-tier research university.

Of course, institutions have to weigh lots of factors in determining how to meet their students’ housing needs. As Mikiten pointed out, colleges and universities are struggling financially to maintain the historic dormitories that are landmarks for their campuses, and the fact is newer facilities are usually more cost-effective than renovating historic dormitories.

But there is more going on behind the scenes as well. Many institutions are eager to tap the bond market to take advantage of low interest rates for capital to leverage housing projects. But bond investors are reluctant after Moody’s Investors Service recently warned that closures at public and not-for-profit colleges are expected to triple by 2017. In a report issued last September, Moody’s also found that since fall 2010, “the smallest colleges have lost market share to larger colleges,” a trend it describes as “primarily driven by factors related to student preferences. Colleges with more substantial scale have greater ability to reinvest in degree programs, student life, and capital facilities.”

So, as is the case with larger institutions like UC Berkeley, the student housing scenario for many other schools is likely to be determined by business speculators and private investment.

“As for-profit developers gradually take over the niche of student housing, it’s important for architects to step up and design efficient yet thoughtful spaces for college students,” says Mikiten. “And when I see the increasing challenges our nonprofit clients face in providing low-income housing, it’s clear that architects, administrators, and developers need to approach student housing as an important part of the wider and pressing social issue of affordable urban housing for everyone.”