Community Colleges Need Student Housing, Too

Community Colleges Need Student Housing, Too

By Carrie Rossenfeld for

Costa Mesa, CA —

Student-housing demand is up as community colleges strategically begin to add affordable on-campus housing options, MVE + Partners principal Jeff Larsen tells Orange County alone is home to 18 accredited community colleges serving nearly 200,000 students. Record-high rents and home prices are driving up the cost of living in this county, and for local students—or those seeking Orange County as a destination for higher education—these factors are just a few of the challenges they have to face in addition to increased tuition rates.

We spoke with Larsen, who is lead designer on the development team for Orange Coast College student housing, about what is driving this trend and what design challenges and solutions look like for community-college student housing. Why is on-campus housing an afterthought at best for most community colleges?

Larsen: On-campus housing isn’t as prevalent in California community colleges today because the student population historically was composed of local high school graduates who typically resided at home. Of the 114 California community colleges, only 11 offer on-campus housing. Most of these institutions provide this benefit because they’re located in rural areas where on-campus housing is a critical alternative to a long commute.

The challenges of adding on-campus housing at a community college are highlighted by long lead times to incorporate housing into an updated campus master plan, as well as state environmental approvals. In addition, adding first-time housing to a campus has impacts to infrastructure, campus security, services and student-life operations—not to mention fiscal impacts.

While community colleges may lack resources to construct and manage on-campus housing, these challenges can be addressed in creative ways that allow the institution to profit from investing in this type of project. We are seeing an uptick in private-public partnerships where institutions partner with developers to build student housing. This solution allows the school to provide the land and avoid debt by freeing up capital for other important resources like classrooms, student centers or libraries. Why is there a need now for on-campus housing at these schools?

Larsen: It also appears that rising tuition rates and limited space are an unstoppable force at four-year universities. As a result, some students are unable to achieve their goal of attending a favored university and select an alternate path of attending a community college for financial and strategic benefits. In addition, housing prices have soared exponentially in urban/suburban areas of Southern California, including many areas surrounding community colleges. This is a challenge for the influx of students from out of the area, non-resident and international, looking for rental housing. Successful athletic programs and recognized academic programs are also drawing more students from outside a community college’s locale.

Offering affordable, fully furnished on-campus housing at community colleges enables incoming students to get the “going away to college” experience while reducing out-of-pocket costs. Constructing an on-campus housing facility can also be extremely profitable for a community college and the surrounding area: the college generates a new and consistent source of revenue, and the community has new residents to patronize local retail, restaurants, and other services. What elements of student housing are necessary for community colleges that might not be necessary for other types of colleges and universities?

Larsen: Because the services of community colleges largely differ from a four-year university, the needs within the design of on-campus student housing are also very different. The design of the on-campus facility needs to align itself with existing support services, like an existing robust dining facility, by minimizing or not providing kitchens within the unit. If dining is not available, institutions can consider more independence by providing full apartment-style kitchens within the units.

One design challenge we face when thinking about these projects is how to design units that will appeal to different age groups who attend community college. Some students may be right out of high school and away from home for the first time; others may be older and going back to school to pursue a degree; still others may be from out of the country. This diversity requires comfortable, engaging social spaces where students can grow in learning about other cultures and personal perspectives. In traditional four-year schools, we often see the specialized design of these structures as oriented to freshman, sophomores or upperclassmen, but because of the compressed timeframe of a community college experience, the units need to be much more versatile in size and layout—from bedrooms to communal and private living spaces to bathrooms. What else should our readers know about this topic?

Larsen: The benefits that on-campus housing brings to four-year universities carries over to community colleges in the enhancement of student academic and social success and timely graduation. On-campus students better utilize campus resources like recreation centers, libraries and student centers and are more involved in clubs and group activities. Full-time campus residents have a more immersive collegiate experience and bring a 24-hour energy to the campus environment that results in a true “community” college.

This trend is not only revolutionizing the way we design, construct and manage on-campus housing facilities, but also revolutionizing the way in which community colleges are elevated in the eyes of community members, faculty, parents and current and future students.