Dorms scarce in housing boom

Luxury student apartments are sprouting across the Big Ten, but schools are cautious to add more beds of their own.

Nicolas Hallett

Private student housing is a big game at universities nationwide, but Big Ten schools aren’t eager to jump in.

Though most Big Ten universities report high occupancy rates in their residence halls, the University of Minnesota and others don’t plan to build new facilities or compete with private developers.

Residence halls across the conference are near capacity. Big Ten schools reported about 97 percent occupancy on average, according to a recent report from Marquette Advisors, a real estate consulting firm. Marquette surveyed all Big Ten schools except Northwestern University for its study. Last year, University of Minnesota residential halls were nearly 99 percent full.

Still, University Housing and Residential Life director Laurie McLaughlin said the school won’t increase on-campus housing and isn’t trying to compete with the private market.

“I don’t necessarily view it as a missed opportunity,” McLaughlin said. “You can’t be all things to all people, so you need to focus on … your core competency.”

The University area has seen a private student housing boom in recent years. More than 2,300 beds are set to open in 965 apartments in the fall, according to the Marquette Advisors report.

The University added 600 beds with the addition of the 17th Avenue residence hall this fall but still lags behind its peers in on-campus offerings.

The University has the second-highest enrollment in the Big Ten Conference but offers the second-lowest amount of on-campus housing at about 6,300 beds, the report said. The University has the lowest ratio of beds to students in the Big Ten.

“At this point, we don’t know how the off-campus boom is going to affect us,” University housing associate director Mannix Clark said. “We haven’t had this much before. Until we are able to assess that, we don’t want to commit to anything.”

The University is comfortable with its on-campus housing capacity now, Wiesner said. The University built the 17th Avenue residence hall, its first new dorm in more than a decade, because it was consistently placing many students in overflow housing.

“We’re kind of conservative when it comes to our building approach,” Clark said, “which I think many of our Big Ten colleges are as well.”

Private market 

Housing staff at the University of Michigan and the University of Wisconsin said student housing is exploding near their campuses.

Peter Logan, the University of Michigan’s director of communications for university housing, said many new developments in Ann Arbor are luxury apartments and are leased by the bed.

“They are certainly aimed at a more affluent student or parent population,” he said, adding that rent prices range from about $800 to $1,400.

Rent at this type of apartment near the University of Minnesota averaged $903 for a private bedroom last year, according to the Marquette Advisors report. Vacancy in “by the bed” apartments averaged about 1.7 percent.

Public institutions don’t operate their residence halls to make money, University of Wisconsin housing director Paul Evans said, and they don’t want to build new facilities because the cost would fall on students.

The jump in private student housing has not impacted demand for university-provided room and board, Logan said. The new apartments are taking business from one another instead.

“Generally speaking for university housing, we’re here to provide a good residential experience for students,” he said. “We’re not necessarily here to be a dominant student housing force.”

Public growth

While Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan say they’re content with their student housing, the University of Iowa is planning to expand.

Iowa Assistant Director of Contracts and Assignments Ryan Cohenour said the city hasn’t seen the private student housing market increase in more than a decade, but the school is opening a new residence hall next spring to meet enrollment needs.

“Our freshman classes are growing,” he said. “We are admitting more students than we ever have before.”

Big Ten universities are growing because they’re admitting more international students, Cohenour said, and fewer local students who already live nearby.

The University of Iowa is looking to boost its on-campus housing numbers by retaining second- and third-year students, he said.

“We’re pulling from a much bigger crowd,” he said. “And we’re seeing the benefits from that.”

At Michigan, Logan said he’ll be looking to edge out other schools in the conference, rather than the new apartments around campus.

“If there’s any competitive edge here we’re working on, it’s to keep our school competitive with our peer institutions,” Logan said.