Colleges move out of the dorm business

Amy Scott Mar 13, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Among the many rites of passage that college brings, the very first one might be the most shocking: the dorm room. Cinder block walls, bunk beds, showers down the hall, learning to live with a bunch of complete strangers.

For students nowadays, that’s just not cutting it. But sprucing up real estate isn’t exactly in a lot of college budgets these days. So schools are turning to private companies to give dorms an extreme makeover.

From the Marketplace Education Desk at WYPR, Amy Scott reports.

Amy Scott: Last fall, the board of trustees at the University of Kentucky in Lexington took a tour of the campus dorms. They were shocked to see rooms like this:

Matt Longacre: We’ve got a closet and two windows, but you can almost — can almost touch both walls when you reach across.

Matt Longacre is director of Patterson Hall. It was built more than a century ago. The room is about the size of a Volkswagen bus.

Longacre: Part of the reason this room is empty is because nobody wants to live in a space like this.

The average dorm at UK is almost 50 years old. Group showers, concrete block walls, dingy carpets. After their tour, the board ordered a massive overhaul.

Angela Martin: They said this had to be a priority.

Angela Martin is treasurer at the University of Kentucky.

Martin: If we want to recruit and retain top students, these students are coming from homes where they’ve had their own bedroom, their own bathroom, and the thoughts of sharing a bathroom with 45 other people just is not appealing.

The state university — squeezed by budget cuts — couldn’t afford a wholesale upgrade. So instead the school decided to lease a chunk of land to a private company called Education Realty Trust. EdR will build and manage two new dorms and share the profits with the university.

Martin: The developer can build it cheaper and operate it cheaper — even with building in a profit. This is what they do.

If it all goes well, EdR may eventually replace most of the university’s 6,000 beds and add 3,000 more. Now, if this were ‘Extreme Makeover: College Edition’ this is when people would start shouting.

“Extreme Makeover” clip: Move that bus! Move that bus!

And a giant bus would pull out of the frame to reveal brand new luxury dorms. But they’re not built yet. So I went to see another dorm built by EdR at the University of Louisville, about an hour and half drive to the west.

Teresa Crum: We are in the lobby of Bettie Johnson Hall. We have two fitness rooms and a TV room as well. If you walk out the other side of the lobby you’ll walk into our pool and patio area.

Teresa Crum is community manager for the EdR dorms. With mottled tan wallpaper and pink and purple carpet, Bettie Johnson Hall feels more like a hotel or retirement home than a dorm. Students live in apartments.

Knocking sound

I find freshman Whitney Arion sprawled on a couch watching MTV.

Whitney Arion: I wanted to live here because we get our own rooms, our own bathrooms, a nice little kitchen, and a living room area where we can lounge whenever we want to. It’s just like being at home.

She shares the kitchen and living room with a roommate. The bathroom is all hers, decked out with zebra print shower curtain and bath mat. The dorm is co-ed. But the privacy seems to attract a lot of women.

Gno Williams: Bettie Johnson? Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. They known for the cute girls. Another thing I enjoy about living here.

Sophomore Gno Williams says he works at Taco Bell and Foot Locker to help cover the bill. His double with a shared bathroom costs about $600 more a semester than a traditional dorm.

Williams: I was like, either I can get a smaller dorm and have a little bit more change in my pocket, or I can like live in a nice dorm where I’m happy and be broke. So I guess I chose broke.

Plenty of students — or their parents — are making that choice. University of Louisville President Jim Ramsey says the privately run dorms are pretty much full. And he says they’ve helped his school attract a different caliber of student. The average ACT score of incoming students is up. So are graduation rates.

Jim Ramsey: At the end of the day it all ties back to what we’re trying to accomplish academically. That is recruit the very best students, have them on campus, and engaged in campus life. Because that’s going to increase their academic performance and get them to ultimately graduation.

Students may not even notice if a private company takes over their dorm. They still have student RAs and campus events like any dorm. But when college students act like college students — punching holes in the walls to hang their flat-screen TVs or spilling beer all over the rug — then the difference becomes really clear. The folks who come to clean it up will be from EdR. The university is out of that business.

I’m Amy Scott for Marketplace.

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