This story starts with Tempur-Pedic mattresses, those high-end memory foam jobs. Every bed in the University of Kentucky’s Central Hall has one.
“I think of my old mattress as sort of a bad dream, and my new mattress as a sort of fantasy dream,” says Tolu Odukoya, a sophomore biology major at UK.
Last year he lived in one of the oldest dorms on the Lexington campus, in a tiny room with bunk beds. The communal bathroom was down the hall. Now he’s in a $25 million complex that opened in August, built and managed by a private developer.
Sophomore Noell Conley lives there, too. She shows off the hotel-like room she shares with a roommate.
“As you walk in, to the right you see our granite countertops with two sinks, one for each of the residents,” she says.
A partial wall separates the beds. Rather than trek down the hall to shower, they share a bathroom with the room next door.
“That’s really nice compared to community bathrooms that I lived in last year,” Conley says.
To be fair, granite countertops last longer. Tempur-Pedic is a local company — and gave a big discount. The amenities include classrooms and study space that are part of the dorm. Many of the residents are in the university’s Honors program. But do student really need Apple TV in the lounges, or a smartphone app that lets them check their laundry status from afar?
“Demand has been very high,” says the university’s Penny Cox, who is overseeing the construction of several new residence halls on campus. Before Central Hall’s debut in August, the average dorm was almost half a century old, she says. That made it harder to recruit.
“If you visit places like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama,” Cox says, “and you compare what we had with what they have available to offer, we were very far behind.”
Today colleges are competing for a more discerning consumer. Students grew up with fewer siblings, in larger homes, Cox says. They expect more privacy than previous generations — and more comforts.
“These days we seem to be bringing kids up to expect a lot of material plenty,” says Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University and author of the book “Generation Me.”
Those students could be in for some disappointment when they graduate, she says.
“When some of these students have all these luxuries and then they get an entry-level job and they can’t afford the enormous flat screen and the granite countertops,” Twenge says, “then that’s going to be a rude awakening.”
Some on campus also worry about the divide between students who can afford such luxuries and those who can’t. The so-called premium dorms cost about $1,000 more per semester. Freshman Josh Johnson, who grew up in a low-income family and lives in one of the university’s 1960s-era buildings, says the traditional dorm is good enough for him.
“I wouldn’t pay more just to live in a luxury dorm,” he says. “It seems like I could just pay the flat rate and get the dorm I’m in. It’s perfectly fine.”
In the near future students who want to live on campus won’t have a choice. Eventually the university plans to upgrade all of its residence halls.