More two-year colleges turning to on-campus housing

Waking up the campus (Alexandria Technical & Community College)

The college residential experience -- living on campus, walking to class and hanging out with classmates at night --  may no longer be the domain of four-year colleges and universities.

An increasing number of community and technical colleges in Minnesota are shedding the reputation of sleepy commuter schools and building on-campus housing to lure students.

It's a slowly developing trend that college and housing officials say is caused by tight rural housing markets, increasingly mobile students and changing student demands.

"Students and parents are much more in tune with housing than they ever were," said Tom Wacholz, whose company, ORB Management, directs development of student housing for colleges. "They want the college to be involved."

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About 25 percent of American community and technical colleges provide on-campus student housing, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Kent Phillippe, the organization's associate vice president for research, said his data isn't comprehensive. But he said conversations with campus officials around the country indicate increasing interest in building more housing.

In Minnesota, just over 40 percent of two-year campuses have on-campus housing -- and that figure may soon rise.

Last month, Northland Community and Technical College in Thief River Falls and Minnesota West Community and Technical College in Worthington told state officials they want to provide housing at their campuses. And Central Lakes College is considering the prospect as well.

Their communities fit what Phillippe says is typical. Two-year colleges that offer on-campus housing tend to be small or medium-size and located in small towns or rural areas.

They have different ways of getting into the housing game, Wacholz said. Sometimes they build and run their own housing projects. Or they may own the land -- on campus or next to it -- but let an investor build the housing. A management company may come in to collect rent and handle the day-to-day chores once students move in.

The key, Wacholz said, "is integrating the academic institution with the housing. It's all about student life."


A place to bond (Alexandria Technical & Community College)

Foundation Hall at Alexandria Technical & Community College is one example.

The building has 40 student apartments and several resident assistants who look after students and plan activities such as games, movie nights and potlucks.

Campus officials say the 24-hour student presence has changed the college's atmosphere.

"You come here in the evenings, and there are people hanging out outside -- playing catch or just studying," said Jenny Odland, who helped direct the housing project. "You wouldn't have seen that before."

Foundation Hall resident assistant Bryan Hannah, a 22-year-old law enforcement major from Lakeville, said he feels more connected to campus and his studies than he did when he lived in town.

He said the all-inclusive rent package means he doesn't have to worry about fluctuating utility bills, and unlike off-campus students, he doesn't have to worry about whether his car will start in the morning.

Living on campus, he said, "is easier. People can focus more on school and still get to those activities."

Several factors appear to be driving the trends, campus and housing officials say.

One is a lack of good housing in rural areas.

No cafeteria needed (Alexandria Community & Technical College)

In the case of Minnesota West and Northland, a MnSCU report states that a booming economy has drawn in so many workers to those two communities that decent housing for students is tight -- and hurting those colleges' ability to attract students.

"People will come, inquire about our programs, perceive the lack of temporary housing, and tell us they can't come," said Minnesota West President Richard Shrubb. "That's a very common occurrence during registration and enrollment periods. So we know for a fact that we lose students ... because they don't have a place to live."

Students are also more willing to travel across the state to attend programs -- such as Minnesota West's wind-energy technology program -- that aren't available at home, Shrubb said.

"It used to be, 10 or 20 years ago ... people would live at home with their parents, be very traditionally aged college students, and just drive to the campus," he said. "That's not true anymore. People have so much flexibility to go to school online or far away, that our choices aren't limited to the local college anymore."

And students and their parents are becoming savvier -- and more demanding of colleges. They want the convenience, support and lifestyle that on-campus living offers.

"Times have changed," Wacholz said. "The demographic of the student has changed. ... The cost of going to college has increased dramatically. ... We're finding that students want to get to get to college, they want focus on their academics, and get their degree so they can move on into the working world sooner. And by being in a student housing facility with other students, it's easier for them to do that."

Sleep in a little more (Alexandria Community & Technical College)

And if one college doesn't offer student housing, Wacholz said, students will find one that does.

He said that during a campus visit, he heard from a parent whose son was checking out the college because he wanted to play football there.

"They were looking at a number of community colleges," Wacholz recalled. "She made a comment that she liked the campus ... and when she asked, 'OK, where is my son going to live?' the answer was there was no on-campus student housing available. ... She said, 'Well, that's probably going to cause me and my son to look elsewhere.'"

The factor that doesn't seem to be driving students -- at least at Alexandria -- is cost.

Although Alex Tech's housing is cheaper than its equivalent on the private market -- $540 a month compared to $700 or $800 a month -- campus officials say students can find cheaper housing around town.

But Odland said, "There are some people who come with their parents, and they don't even ask how much it is. They just want to live in student housing."

According to MnSCU, these campuses offer on-campus student housing:

  • Owned by the college

    • Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College

    • Vermilion Community College

    • Hibbing Community College

    • Rainy River Community College

    • Itasca Community College

  • Owned by an outside party

    • Alexandria Technical and Community College

    • M-State Fergus Falls

    • Minnesota West Community and Technical College – Canby

    • Mesabi Range (Virginia)

    • Riverland Community College (Austin)