Colleges Have Entered An Amenities Arms Race To Attract New Students

In 2016, enrollment in higher education was down 1.4% from the previous fall, marking the fifth straight year of decline. While some universities, particularly nonprofits that depend on tuition as a main source of revenue, have had to cut back on spending, others have beefed up amenities. Students are being offered more luxurious, resort-style accommodations in an attempt to increase attendance and tuition rolls. 

The renovations are not restricted to private institutions. Public universities are now tapping into taxpayer funds to fuel new construction, and compete in this Amenities Arms Race. According to College Planning & Management's 2018 Facilities Brief, 61% of colleges and universities will completed a major construction project in 2018, and 52% will be starting new projects. 

Part of the motivation behind the upgrades has been to keep pace with students’ changing expectations. The closet-sized rooms and ramen noodles of the past do not meet today's higher standards of living. As more students prefer to live on campus throughout college, universities need facilities that can accommodate upperclassmen, and promote a more residential atmosphere to supplement academic life.

Of the non-academic spaces being built by higher education institutions in the last few years, new dorms make up 70%. At Boston University, when 33 Harry Agganis Way opened in 2009, the 26-story and 19-story towers brought luxury-style condo living to 960 sophomores, juniors and seniors. The apartments boast 180-degree views of the city, walk-in closets, air conditioning and spacious rooms. Academic institutions are betting students will pay up to live in the high-end dorm. 

Students are willing to pay a little more money if they’re able to have an apartment, a single room in an apartment, and be close to activities on campus. And we’ve done that.
— Boston University Director of Housing Marc Robillard

Dining halls have also shifted focus; more holistic meal plans, and universities are going beyond the all-you-can-eat buffet-style dining, to offering current trends like restaurant style eating and fast-casual customizable options. At High Point University in North Carolina, students can take advantage of a private steakhouse, South Dakota State has a dairy bar with 60 flavors of homemade ice cream, and UMass Amherst boasts a customizable sushi bar in every dining hall. At Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, unlimited dining hall swipes ensure students never go hungry.

Colleges have opted for more experiential services, and recreation and athletic facilities represent some of the more outlandish renovations. The University of Missouri now offers the Lazy-River Beach Club, an indoor beach with a grotto said to be modeled after the one at the Playboy Mansion. At Michigan Technology University in Houghton, Michigan, students have access to local ski resorts.

Focusing on amenities that create a “wow” factor for prospective students might be a better business plan for less selective schools that are not known for their academic rigor. College enrollment is not expected to rise again until 2020. For institutions banking on pools, bowling alleys and chefs to reel in freshman, time will tell if the investment proves effective.

Phase Zero Design has been at the helm of several university master planning projects, transforming the nation's centers for higher education into campuses ready to meet the needs of today’s students. While some amenities might seem excessive, well thought out, student-focused amenities can enhance students' sense of belonging throughout their college careers. 

Written by Travis Gonzalez for Bisnow in collaboration with Phase Zero Design