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Student housing: If you let someone else build it, they will come

Pictured is the $175 million North Quadrangle on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. (Source: Michael Barera/Wikimedia Commons) Pictured is the $175 million North Quadrangle on the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor. (Source: Michael Barera/Wikimedia Commons)

(RNN) - Cinder block walls, twin beds and community bathrooms are no longer accepted as norms of residential life for many college students.

Overall college enrollment has risen since 1991, but schools are struggling to find cash for things in their budgets - particularly, student housing - and letting private companies build and operate dorms seems a sensible option to many institutions.

Outsourcing residence hall projects is nothing new, but the trend is evolving. Cutting edge, on-campus residences outfitted with restaurants and private gyms have popped up across America - and more are coming.

Expert design consultant David Damon said while it may appear there is competition among schools to give college students a cushier existence than their predecessors, function is even more a factor than flash.

"I think the trend we're seeing more of is to see residence halls tailored to more purposeful common space, more purpose than just a social atmosphere," said Damon, a specialist in higher education at the global design and architecture firm Perkins+Will.

Newer living communities often have large common areas and study rooms with wifi access, a necessity for today's college student. They also give students an incentive to socialize with peers who live in their building and, especially for freshmen, make the transition to college life easier.

North Quadrangle at the University of Michigan, the first new dorm built on campus since 1967, was completed in 2010. It features suites to house 450 upperclassmen, a TV studio, video-teleconferencing rooms, multiple dining options including a coffee house and it's also the hub for an international learning program.

Swanky digs aren't limited to big-name schools.

Kennesaw State University's University Village Suites is a freshmen-only complex with an art gallery and a convenience store. The Heights at Montclair State University has a 24,000-square-foot, multicultural dining hall and wifi access in each room.

Damon noted as another example a housing and dining hall project for the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he said a lot of the current on-campus housing is outdated.

The first phase of the project opened recently - a 500-seat dining hall expansion complete with a coffee house. Since there aren't a lot of options for social activity off campus, that extra perk is viewed as more necessity than luxury.

The University of Kentucky is considered one of the pioneers in this regard. Instead of entering a partnership in building and maintaining new residence halls in 2012, it turned over total control of a multi-million housing project to a third-party developer, Education Realty Trust. The university receives a portion of the revenue EdR generates from student rent.

The big question is if the new trends in student housing are driven by true demand or if designers take advantage of a stable market.

"The honest truth is the speed of change with technology, with 15 year olds and how they change and develop ideas is faster than we can build," Damon said. "The spaces we build now are really for 15 year olds, not 19 year olds. Some of it's built on best practices and also what's on campus, but innovation is always going to be tweaked based on needs of today's children."

Follow me on Twitter @GJones_RNN.

Copyright 2014 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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