“Why Are Dorms So Ugly?”

  • Jul 12, 2019

By Ellen Moriarty, Project Manager

“Why are dorms so ugly?” is the question I’m asked most frequently when fellow professionals learn of my specialty in student housing. It’s not unfair: most of the residence halls we all remember from college were bland on the outside, dank on the inside, and smelly throughout. But I only recently started to consider the question seriously.  Well, why?

The short answer – because they could be.  The slightly longer one – because they had to be, and because nobody knew better. Remember, after WWII, universities experienced a wave of students enrolling on the GI bill.  Often, these were the first in their families to attend college. And after a few years of service, most were thrilled for a room they didn’t have to share with fifty other people.

On the universities’ side, they had to build accommodations big, fast, cheap, and solid. “Pretty” didn’t make the cut. Moreover, the psychological profession was still young, we didn’t fully understand how students learn, and we hadn’t begun to consider the impact of environment on mental well-being.

The 1960s – 1990s: A Look-Back

In the 1960s, campuses experienced a new wave, this time an explosive new “baby boom,” now college age. Men enrolled to avoid being drafted to Vietnam; women enrolled to meet and marry a college guy. Campuses again had to supplement their inventory quickly, but now with an added consideration: amid the cold war, structures had to be even more robust, and facilities often included basements that could double as fallout shelters. Residence halls became bastions in reserve, down to the rations in lower-level storage.

These fortresses served with little need for maintenance – and ignored the need for improvement – until the mid-90s when those students of the 60s returned with prospective students of their own. Now middle-aged, middle-class, and trained by television to attend to their children’s every need, these customers demanded more. And they had research on their side, with much more information available on cognitive development, educational practice, and environmental study.

Campuses found themselves competing with peer institutions, not just on academic reputation or the best football team, but on their residence halls, student life amenities, and food. They also saw mounting pressure from the private real estate market, capitalizing on those dismal conditions. We know that students who live on campus are more likely to complete their degrees, complete them on time, have a strong connection to the university, and become supportive, generous alumni. But they won’t live on campus if the residence halls are depressing, the activities are boring, and the food is terrible, especially when there’s an apartment complex right across the street. The amenities race was on.

The 2000s: A New Era in Public and Private Student Housing

The 2000s saw an unexpected shot in the arm when interest rates dropped to unimaginable lows, making construction wildly affordable. More and more developers entered the race with off-campus apartments marketed to students – and these had all the luxuries of upscale resorts.

Students now have access to pools, hot tubs, game rooms, fitness rooms, sand volleyball, ski simulators, and more. Construction slowed for just a few minutes when the recession hit in 2008, but many institutions seized the opportunity offered by a depressed construction market, willing to build for peanuts. Relaxed building codes allowed wood frame construction up to four stories in student housing, and the private market devised a new financing instrument in the Public-Private Partnership. Now a campus could have brand new residence halls, with almost no cost upfront!

So, where are we now?

Millennials are out of college. This new generation, “Gen Z,” is so young it doesn’t even have its name yet… and it’s not nearly as big a wave like the one before it. Moreover, these new students are a different, cost-conscious breed. Having grown up in a string of recessions – the tech bubble, the post-9/11 slowdown, and the slow recovery post-2008 – they understand the value of higher education, but also the burden of debt. They’re weighing all of their options carefully, exploring trade schools and community colleges for practical training, and smaller, regional universities that are more affordable. And as they arrive on campus, they’re more focused on the academic experience than the social one. Even developers observe that they don’t care about the pools or foosball tables that dazzled their predecessors. Value is more important.

Gen Z is more diverse and more accepting of diversity. As digital natives, they’re willing to innovate in maker spaces, and then market their ideas in entrepreneurship centers. As children of recession, they’re more interested in open pantries for food-insecure students, than elaborate and expensive sushi bars in the dining hall. And again, many are first-generation students, benefitting from the consolidated services of a student success center. Despite their frugality, however, they still expect quality, and unlike the post-WWII GI’s, they won’t settle for “ugly dorms.”