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New digs for a new generation

If you haven’t visited the student residences on campus for awhile, you might be in for a surprise.


Single rooms. double beds. Weekly cleaning service. Your own bathroom, or close to it. Sparkling laundry facilities that text-message you when your wash is done. Customized dining-hall meals you actually write home about – via your Wi-Fi connection. Or if you choose to cook for yourself, it’s on granite countertops in the kitchen.

Not the university dorm experience you remember? Welcome to student rez life in the 21st century.

Sure, there are plenty of campuses where shotgun hallways, messy roommates and line-ups for the shower remain the norm. But as universities expand, replace aging infrastructure and compete for harder to attract out-of-province and international students, what students want takes top priority. That means more privacy, lots of options, and amenities that once were considered luxuries.

“When you have first-year students applying to residence, their first choice is a single room,” reports Kate Kinsella, president of the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers. “With smaller families, they’ve probably grown up having their own room, so the idea of having to then turn around and share is not so appealing.”

Fred Besik, 20, is one of those. A third-year English and geography student at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, he lives in UTM’s newest residence, the 422-bed Oscar Peterson Hall, built in 2007. His sun-filled room is small, at 115 square feet, but it’s all his. It connects to a shared bathroom with one other student. “That was an important thing for me here – that I had my own space,” says Mr. Besik, a Mississauga local who grew up with two younger sisters.

The University of Manitoba has taken the student privacy demand one step further, giving students not only their own bedrooms but their own bathrooms, too, in New Pembina Hall, a 360-bed residence poised to open this September.

“The research we did with students led us to believe the two main amenities they wanted would be private bathrooms and high-speed Internet,” says Joe Danis, U of M’s director of housing and student life.

They’ll get much more than that. Units are designed to be “loft-style” with high ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and exposed beams. There’s wireless Internet service throughout the building, and students will take their meals in an adjacent dining hall.

“Millennial students” – those coming into the system in the last decade – are used to more comfort and better security measures, the research shows. A recent study of students at Longwood University in Virginia revealed the top 10 amenities students want include private bedrooms, double beds, Internet access, a fitness centre, cable TV and flexibility to use their meal plan at more venues than the main dining hall. “What were once considered to be luxuries in student housing – kitchens, private bedrooms, private bathrooms, social spaces and lounges – are now expected,” wrote the study’s authors.

At the University of Saskatchewan, students who move into a 400-bed, suite-style undergrad residence (now under construction) will have granite countertops in their kitchens, although the university says that didn’t cost extra. Mr. Besik, at U of T Mississauga, likes the convenience of pizza delivery using his meal-plan debit card and washing machines on every floor that text students when the spin cycle is done. The University of Toronto’s Chestnut Residence, a converted downtown hotel with 1,050 beds, boasts its own pastry chef retained from the hotel staff, cable TV in every room and king-size beds.

All this can add up to premium prices. But there are enough students and families willing to pay for the extras, says Josephine Mullally, dean of residence at Chestnut, where residence fees range from $11,600 to almost $15,000, including a meal plan and 24-hour security. “The cost of housing in Toronto is high,” she says, “and some of our students have realized it’s just not worth it” to rent and cook for themselves. In resident satisfaction surveys at Chestnut, “food and security are the two top things students list,” she adds.

While catering to students’ desires to this degree may seem like sticking a silver spoon in their mouth while they study, it’s also allowed residences to become home to a more diverse student body. Some international students’ parents demand 24-hour security, for example. Architects are taking into account disabled accessibility and “positive space” for students of different sexual orientations; UTM’s Oscar Peterson Hall offers gender-neutral washrooms in its common areas so transgendered students don’t have to decide which washroom to use. Students’ dietary needs and customs are being better met in cafeterias where the chef is willing to offer options for Muslim students observing the fast of Ramadan or students with food allergies.

There is strong demand for on-campus housing, thanks to rising university enrolments coupled with economic boomlets that have driven up rental prices in cities like Calgary and Saskatoon. The new undergrad residence at the University of Saskatchewan is part of a pedestrian-friendly, 60-hectare site called College Quarter that eventually will provide up to 3,000 student-housing spaces. But if, as some predict, enrolments start dropping, then universities will have to court more out-of-province and international students to keep enrolment up. Availability of quality housing will be a key selling point.

“Can you guarantee housing?” is one of the top questions among international students, says Richard Florizone, U of S’s vice-president, finance and resources. “If you’re serious about recruiting out of province and internationally, you’ve got to have it.”

Student retention is another consideration. “We all know our retention rates of students are higher when they live in residence,” says Meri Kim Oliver, associate vice-president of student services at Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

After meeting its goal to house almost all first-year students on campus, Trent has turned its focus to housing upper-year and international students. It hopes construction on the new Water Street Residence, an apartment and townhouse project geared to some of those students, will start in 2011. The twist on the project is that Trent plans to lease a parcel of endowed land to a private developer, Residence Development Corp. The developer would then build and manage the four-building residence complex.

The concept has generated some controversy in the neighbourhood, but Ms. Oliver says that without any funding for student residences from Ontario’s government, the option is a good one. “If we’re looking to expand, this is the way to go to ensure that the university isn’t taking on [debt] or loading students with that debt payment,” she says.

It’s a path that only a few Canadian universities have taken so far, although it’s proven popular with community colleges and universities in the U.S. and U.K. Residence Development Corp. is the development arm for Campus Living Centres, a Toronto company with residence management contracts at 14 postsecondary institutions in Canada as well as off-campus housing it has built and manages independently.

“Residence is a break-even operation on most campuses,” says Tim Fricker, the company’s director of residence life. “The cost of these old buildings is vast and students want something a little bit better.”

The company’s real estate portfolio includes residences at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. and the University of Ontario Institute of Technology in Oshawa, Ontario. It’s the country’s largest operator of student housing, with 7,000 beds. Nevertheless, says Mr. Fricker, “our goal is to ensure that students don’t even know it’s a residence operated by Campus Living Centres. The students identify it with the institution.”

While private rooms and bathrooms may seem like luxuries for students, they also make those spaces attractive for conference and tourism rentals in the academic off-season, notes Mr. Fricker – and another source of revenue for cash-strapped universities. That’s why many residences managed by Campus Living Centres have telephone jacks and cable connections, to create a hotel experience during the summer.

But, with so many little luxuries and so much privacy, are students ultimately missing out on traditional communal aspects of residence life that can enrich their intellectual and social experience?

“There are many more opportunities for social isolation,” argues Avi Friedman, professor of architecture at McGill University. “It has, in my opinion, caused a serious threat to the functioning of a community where people can interact and exchange ideas face to face.” He believes student residences should not only house, they should also be “buildings that teach.”
Universities have started to recognize this. Townhouses, suite-style and apartment-style accommodations were the trend a decade ago. But the pendulum is starting to swing back to a hybrid of private elements and communal ones, as universities notice that younger students, in particular, are vulnerable to falling through the cracks without sufficient support.

“There need to be common spaces,” asserts Dr. Friedman. “We need to abolish the stigma of residences as a big concrete tower, make them more human, more personable, and create beautiful outdoor spaces that allow people to interact with each other.” Dr. Friedman, a specialist in affordable and sustainable housing, was a consultant on the design of McGill’s Macdonald Campus EcoResidence and also on designs for student residences in the U.K.

At U of T Mississauga, Peterson Hall is considered one of the new hybrids – a low-rise building that blends privacy and community after a long tradition of independent townhouses and, more recently, apartment residences.

“We had students coming in who were great students, but they didn’t know how to do a lick of laundry and they didn’t know how to cook for themselves,” confides Chris McGrath, UTM’s assistant dean of student affairs. With Peterson Hall, “we decided to buck the trend a little and go back to the idea of a traditional dormitory … We wanted to create an environment where interaction is necessary.”

Doorways and hall features are designed to create natural conversation nooks among floor-mates. Each floor of the residence has a two-storey, glassed-in common room with flatscreen TV (and optional gaming console) as well as two study and seminar rooms. There is a single dining hall on the ground floor, the only place where residents can use the meal plan that is mandatory for undergraduate residence students.

With amenities like these, it’s no wonder some students spend their entire undergraduate careers in residence. “You don’t feel isolated in your room,” says Mr. Besik. “I’ve met my closest friends in residence.”

Moira MacDonald
Moira MacDonald is a Toronto-based journalist.
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  1. isabel sullivan barry / March 7, 2011 at 15:32

    I think it is wonderful that institutions here are developing new residences with food plans. Actually, I think it is a saving in education costs – if you are off campus, you have to get to campus. If you are off campus, you may have to furnish your digs in part as well – and then there is food, heat, electricity, cable, internet etc.

    I think that you learn as much in residence as you learn in some classroom experiences. There is the secruity issue as well.

    One should look for the statistics on campus crimes!

    I believe that food plans may be a way to fight obesity . I have a nephew who has put on an unhealthy amount of weight since attending university and I think it’s because he is in charge of his diet doesn’t have the time or inclination to plan healthy meals.

    Residence living in university is not to be equated with boarding school -it is much different.