Justin Wybenga: A Master Class in Catering to Graduate Students

Pursuing higher education is not a decision to be taken lightly. Whether a student chooses medical, graduate, business or law school, it will require money, time and dedication. Investing in education means less time to worry about other responsibilities, day-to-day errands and even socializing with friends. This is where student housing owners and operators can differentiate themselves within the industry. With students’ energy directed elsewhere, there is a market for communities geared toward making their lives outside of the classroom easier and more streamlined while meeting their desire for post-undergraduate living. 

As a leader in upscale student housing, GMH Capital Partners has over 30 years of experience creating successful communities focused on higher education students. Our most recent project — a multifamily building in Providence, Rhode Island, called River House — was originally conceptualized by Brown University, recognizing a need for student housing for its graduate and medical students. GMH, in partnership with Wexford Science & Technology, stepped in to work with the university and bring this vision to life. River House was designed specifically with Brown’s graduate and medical students in mind and now serves as a preferred off-campus housing provider for the university.

One component that should be addressed early on in the building process is the structure of the apartments themselves. At River House, the apartments were designed to include 10-inch hollow-core concrete subfloors between each story to cut down on noise between units. It is extremely important that students have quiet spaces to sleep, decompress and study in their own homes. With varying schedules and workloads, post-undergraduate students especially should not have to worry about noisy neighbors disrupting their routines or vice versa. Addressing these concerns during construction can make a big impact on the long-term success of the project. 

Along with the structure itself, there are many ways managers and owners can cater to graduate students on a service level through various amenities. Amenities should focus on both convenience and comfortability to appeal to students’ busy lifestyle and schedule demands. Offering a variety of workspaces on the premises, allowing residents to either study independently in private rooms or collaborate on group projects in lounges and conference rooms, allows residents to stay close to home while not being tied to their living space. Business centers, high-speed wi-fi, vending machines with healthy snacks and complimentary coffee service also provide a sense of convenience for students. 

Flexibility is another important factor to consider. Unlike many other working professionals, student schedules are often irregular and hours can vary from day to day or month to month. Maintaining flexible hours with personnel available 24-hours a day can alleviate some of the stress caused by an inconsistent schedule. One way to provide convenience is to offer an off-hours concierge service for grocery shopping, dry cleaning pick-up, dog walking, and laundry services. When staff can’t be available 24-hours a day, secure package lockers provide an added element of convenience. Offering online portals to submit maintenance requests and rent payments provide flexibility for unusual or hectic schedules. Including utilities and additional fees in the rent payment can also help eliminate the hassle of extra bills. Making these housekeeping tasks easier and more accessible means students can spend their limited free time doing things they enjoy. 

While social events are a staple in student housing, the nature of these events is different when catering to graduate students. In recent years graduate student housing complexes have started organizing new varieties of in-house events for residents to enjoy in their free time, including those designed for networking with peers. Due to the varied schedules of students, it can be difficult to take advantage of these opportunities when they are offered in the evenings or during the week, which is a time usually spent in the library or in class. Offering organized resident events on the weekends or other hours during the day is a great way to set a community apart as graduate-friendly. 

Flexible lease options are important as well due to the varied lifestyles of graduate students from those who stay year-round to those who may be starting families or staying for a shorter amount of time. For example, River House offers the ability to rent by the bed or by the unit, as well as the option for a furnished or unfurnished unit, making the financial commitment more feasible for cash-strapped students. It also offers in-house matching services to pair roommates with similar schedules and needs. Flexible lease terms cater to traveling students or those only attending the university for a short time by alleviating the stress of having to break a lease prior to the end of the term.  

Overall, student housing has been mainly built around the undergraduate market. However, there is certainly a need for housing centered on more mature students and the nuances of their lives. This subset of students expects to live at a standard that reflects their future earning potential. Though they aren’t there quite yet, they certainly want a change from the undergrad scene. Although they’re often smaller than the undergraduate population, graduate students’ needs should be considered with an equal amount of gravity. 

—Justin Wybenga is the Vice President of Asset Services for GMH Capital Partners, L.P. (“GMH”), a nationally recognized leader in the commercial real estate market specializing in the areas of investment, development, operations, and asset management.