Luxury and The New Politics of Off Campus Housing

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For most college students, the transition from on campus dorms to an off campus apartments is a pivotal step, and the opportunity to have a taste of the self supported, independent lifestyle that awaits them after graduation. School officials know this, and many institutions partner with developers and investors to create luxury-style housing options with attractive amenities and convenient near-campus locations. Units such as these are popular choices and, thanks in large part to rent charges that can often be included in tuition packages, demand for them is higher than ever.

More and more universities are building large condominium-style complexes with attractive amenities to curb rising off campus housing demand. And while off campus units may be a major financial boon for institutions and developers, they can exacerbate the already considerable burden of debt many students face when they graduate.

A lot of it comes down to advertising. Institutions partner with developers and investors to build housing units that bolster their image and profile, providing them with attractive housing options that look great in brochures and advertisements for prospective students. These units are built in nearby neighborhoods, normally just off school grounds, and advertise increased safety and security . . . often along with lavish bonus accommodations like private swimming pools, recreation rooms with big screen TVs and air hockey tables, beach volleyball courts, and indoor rock climbing walls. They’re perfect for college recruitment drives, and the students fortunate enough to take up residence tend to adore them, but they do come with a price that concerns some school officials.

If living in an apartment complex with luxury accommodations sounds expensive that’s because it absolutely is. This type of housing wouldn’t be approachable for the vast majority of young professionals, much less college students, but institutions in partnership with developers will allow students to pay for living in sponsored off campus units such as these as part of their tuition costs, which is much more flexible.

The financial draw of building condominium-style complexes with a near guarantee of full tenancy is a dream for real estate developers. “It’s like night and day compared to what we were doing 20 years ago,” says Greg Faulkner, president of the Dallas based developer Humphreys & Partners Architects. He goes on to say that 80% of the student housing his firm constructs are now off-campus units.

The quad setup is common because they are more efficient to develop and offer higher gross potential rent. At his firm, Faulkner states that a typical project brings in between $800 to $1000 per month per student.

For parents already skeptical of the ballooning expense of higher education, this should be a red flag. The national median for rent in the US today is $804 per month. In Columbus where thousands of students attend Ohio State University from off campus facilities similar to Faulkner’s, the median rent is only $722 per month. Which means that college students who lack disposable incomes in institution sponsored off campus housing are paying up to 30% more for their rent than people with full time jobs.

To capitalize on the high demand for off campus housing, developers have doubled down on the construction of large living facilities with features designed to appeal to first time renters. This holds true particularly on urban campuses nationwide, from Temple University in Philadelphia to USC in Los Angeles, and OSU in Columbus.

But these prices stand to be scrutinized because any student or family that does so will reveal a difficult truth. Though the facilities are extravagant in nature, they’re still designed to maximize the amount of students that occupy them to maximize profits for the developers. Rather than having their own room as they would if they had gotten a normal off campus apartment, students in facilities such as these must often still have roommates.

Concerns with off-campus housing complexes of this style are more than just financial. As the New York Times pointed out, school officials are concerned with the insular environment they may create causing students to become less engaged in on campus activities. With a wealth of amenities at their fingertips, students may be less inclined to go out into surrounding neighborhoods, thereby missing out on a wealth of experiences commonly associated with moving off campus..

“It’s sort of this mass-produced, soulless luxury,” commented a recent Missouri State graduate on such a facility.
There is certainly nothing inherently wrong with providing students more choices for their housing needs, and as long as there is demand these lavish units will continue to be constructed. But for any student interested in moving off campus, whether they have the financial support of their family or not, it’s critical to weigh the true price of comfort.