What's On My Mind? Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Eric Luskin Eric Luskin

Eric Luskin, Senior Vice President, The Scion Group

As an observer and collaborator on over 100 campuses, it has been a delight to witness first-hand the changing role and scope of student housing. I have heard parents, faculty and colleagues remark that “dorms sure have changed since I went to school” countless times over the years. Even the word “dorms” generally has disappeared from the language of many, particularly on-campus, in favor of “residence halls” or “living-learning centers.” Off-campus too, purpose-built student housing “apartments” have migrated to “residences,” “communities” or even “villages.”  These newer terms begin to describe an experience intended to provide much more than merely a place for students to sleep while in school.

What is clear is that student residential communities have continued to evolve with an increasing focus on efficiently delivering higher levels of service, amenities and a focus on educational purpose more than ever before. The paradigm has definitely shifted from the dormitory of the past, and has moved to facilities that are intentionally planned (physically, fiscally and operationally) and more integrated to support higher levels of living and learning opportunities for today’s students.

For example, students of today seem to feel less bound to old-fashioned notions of when they must accomplish tasks. They have a different internal clock and stay up later at night. Responding to this trend, there’s a shift to a 24-hour environment, affecting the design of everything from libraries to residence halls. Spaces are becoming more flexible and multifunctional, with seminar rooms during the day becoming lounge or study space during evenings and on weekends. Increasingly, there’s 24/7 secure access provided to cafes, technology and more. Residences are becoming a place where students work, collaborate, nap, eat and socialize, and any housing operation that incorporates these activities into policies and building design is more likely to prosper. Student housing needs to be a place where students feel comfortable enough to fall asleep, wake up, grab a coffee or juice with friends and resume collaboration with classmates on a project at virtually any time.

Four major changes during my career for campus housing include an increased focus on costs (for both operating and renewal), compliance requirements (including Fair Housing and Title IX program access), quality (including addressing noise transmission, health and safety features) and perhaps most important, educational value. What’s emerging are new design and management concepts that are now transforming approaches to student housing. New facilities must support the changing lifestyle needs of students while also meeting an expected return on investment — and not just relating to financial performance, but also helping students achieve educational goals and supporting enrollment management objectives of the institution. These changes have manifested themselves within the field of student housing primarily as follows.

ROOM DESIGN

The Past:  Dorms were designed for maximum density, with most students having roommates. Bathrooms, typically the most expensive element of construction, had to be shared by many residents. Housing was viewed as temporary accommodations to warehouse students while taking classes; community bathrooms and double-loaded corridors were the norm.

Modern Design Trends:  Although the shift from dorms to residence halls has been continuing for more than 30 years, the last decade has placed a much greater emphasis on creating a desirable “home” from the students’ perspective. As a result, a greater variety of room types and living arrangements are now commonly part of the planning process, including the use of existing traditional double rooms primarily for first-year students, with many campuses upgrading bathrooms to allow for increased privacy. Suites, pods, apartments and townhomes are increasingly used as move-up options for students through their academic careers. 

FINANCIAL AND OWNERSHIP MODELS

The Past:  The college, university or state owned 100 percent of on-campus housing. New construction and renovation projects were typically financed by the institution or housing system through the sale of long-term bonds, and backed by the full faith and credit of the school or the state government.

Modern Financing and Ownership Trends: Public-Private Partnerships (P3). With so many competing priorities for increasingly scarce resources, virtually all of our clients in the last decade have asked us for a P3 evaluation. While not the best solution for each or even most campuses, today a P3 might be crafted only for monetization, development, operation or in any combination of these. Some involve all campus housing facilities, and some just one new building. Some campuses are not a good fit with any private partners for housing, while others may have a single project utilizing a private partner. Still others may have multiple housing projects on campus, each with a different private partner. Few arrangements, Scion has observed, are identical to others. “Privatization” involves an appropriate balancing of roles. After 27 years of on-campus employment, many colleagues believed I went to the “dark side” by joining a for-profit, private company like Scion, but in recent years, many of those same colleagues have called for help in thinking about an appropriate balance of those roles when considering how they may benefit from a relationship with a private partner.

EDUCATIONAL DESIGN

The Past:  Most student housing communities (even on-campus) were not designed to have a direct educational purpose. Their role was merely to provide safe living space for students while they were pursuing their education in other facilities.

Modern Trends in Educational Design:  An increasing number of new designs for campus student housing facilities are intended to integrate academic and social experiences. Housing designed as living-learning centers are enabling campuses to fulfill new academic and educational goals. Many schools have aligned residential facilities to complement educational outcomes of the institution, which impacts design and actually expands funding possibilities for new or renovated construction.

Our primary objective as consultants has always been to achieve an optimal combination of design concepts, business plans, financial models and operational strategies, all matched to student preferences and institutional goals. As schools change their vision, and generations of students come and go, the landscape continues to shift. It’s been exhilarating to stay current with the trends and collaborate with so many individuals in so many settings. Knowing what I know now, it’s been an experience I would not be willing to trade with anyone.

Eric Luskin has transitioned to a new role as Senior Vice President Emeritus for The Scion Group after a career spanning 41 years covering virtually every aspect of student housing, including 17 years employed by public universities; 10 years employed by private colleges and universities; and 14 years as an officer and principal of The Scion Group. SHB asked Eric to share with us “what’s on his mind” as he reflects on changes he has observed on campuses and in the industry.