All the comforts of home — and then some

placeholder spreadCollege today is a whole new U
In January, The Pennsylvania Board of Education’s Higher Education Council tossed out this idea for a new kind of institution of higher learning: A no-frills, low-cost college where kids could earn a bachelor’s degree sans the on-campus fitness centers, climbing walls, as-comfy-as-home dorm rooms and other expensive amenities found on many campuses today. An emphasis on function over form.

The Yugo model of a college, if you will. The idea—and it is only that, state Board of Education officials stress—came on the heels of a troubling report on rising student debt and was suggested as one way to address that gathering crisis. Make no mistake, the escalating cost of higher education and student indebtedness, which in Pennsylvania averages $19,047 and is rising, is worrisome for a number of reasons, not the least of which is what to do about an underprepared workforce that doesn’t have the kind of money it takes to get a college degree.

Yet, listen to university student affairs officials and it is clear that the amenities-free college concept is not one that will become the trend any time soon on campuses in western Pennsylvania, or anywhere else in the nation, despite the current economic downturn. The trend, in fact, has been moving in the opposite direction for more than a decade. More than ever before, universities of all kinds have directed their energy and resources toward enhancing student life and their extracurricular environment, spending millions in the process.

Schools say they’ve had little choice but to do so for the simple reason that students and their parents, while they may chafe at the cost of a college education, are demanding not only top-flight academic opportunities, but a better quality of life outside the classroom as well. As a population, this “millennial generation” of students has been described as both highly gifted and perhaps the most pampered and closely parented group ever to set foot on campus. As standard bearers of a culture of choice, their influence is being felt at universities everywhere.

Take food service, for example. Gone are the days when a dorm cafeteria could get away with a smorgasbord featuring rubbery, hours-old eggs, beans swimming in tepid water, gray patties of mystery meat and Jell-O squares. Today, students are likely to find—and to expect—amenities such as made-to-order meals, upscale campus food courts, franchise restaurants and international cuisine.

“For this generation, eating out is not just for special occasions. It is a common way of life,” says Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students at the University of Pittsburgh. “When they come here, they want us to be in sync with what they’re used to. They want the quality of service they and their parents expect. I mention parents a lot because parents are very much part of the equation now.”

The current economic crisis has hit universities hard. Endowments have shrunk considerably, and there is widespread concern that government subsidies and student financial aid will be even leaner than they are today. Even before the recession took hold, the erosion of state support for higher education was leading some public and semi-public universities to think and act more like private schools, feeding their desire to spruce up housing, student unions and find other ways to enhance student life. And, once almost exclusively a private school undertaking, the major capital campaign waged to help pay for academic and student life improvements has become the rule rather than the exception for publicly owned universities and state-related schools.

Even so, the economic downturn is having a chilling effect on spending for student affairs and amenities, says Gwendolyn Dungy, executive director of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, whose 11,000 members represent 1,400 universities worldwide. “A lot of people I speak with now are telling me they have to put capital projects on hold.” But while fiscal restraint may be the current mantra, there is no indication that schools are willing to turn back the clock when it comes to making life attractive to students outside the classroom. And for good reason.

Meeting the expectations of students and parents is crucial to the recruitment and retention of students—two issues of vital importance to a university’s economic health, academic mission and image. The baby boomers left college campuses a long time ago, and some universities now have more classroom spaces than students to fill them. At more selective schools where that is not the case, admissions officials must recruit from a shallow pool of high-quality prospects. Either way, the competition for students is stiff, and schools are competing any way they can.

And once they enroll students, schools work hard to keep them. A high rate of attrition creates more than fiscal problems for colleges and universities. Today’s prospective students and their parents are a savvy group when it comes to selecting a college. For better or for worse, the bible for many is the annual U.S. News & World Reports College Guide, which ranks the nation’s universities according to its own, somewhat controversial, methodology and posts school-specific data in several categories, including student retention.

The influence of those numbers is not lost on student affairs officials such as Anne Wichner, Carnegie Mellon University’s assistant dean of student affairs. In January, she met a high school junior considering CMU who had traveled from the eastern part of the state to visit the campus with her mother. “She was quoting our retention rate, which is about 95 percent. To her, that was a selling point because it told her this is a place where students want to stay.” The reasons why students come to a particular university and why they choose to stay or leave are varied and complex. The academic resources a school offers are important. But so are social factors and the extracurricular environment students find on and off campus. In general, when their academic expectations are being met and students feel comfortable and connected, chances are very good they will stay to graduate.

It is not surprising, then, that universities have devoted more attention and resources toward making student life more attractive. And those resources are considerable. At the University of Pittsburgh, the Division of Student Affairs staff numbers 170 employees across 10 departments. During the 30 years she has worked at CMU, Wichner has seen the student affairs staff expand from 24 employees to 120. These student affairs divisions are about all things extracurricular—eating, sleeping, playing and working—and their jurisdiction ranges from health care, housing and dining, to recreation, clubs and other student activities. They likely know their students better than any other college staff, employing focus groups, surveys and other means to keep an ear to the ground, in order to stay current on what students want, need and expect.

And the expectations of students today translate into a basic set of amenities whose quality far surpasses that which was typically found on campus when their parents attended college.

Housing, for example, has evolved to meet the basic expectations of students who often arrive on campus having never had to share a bedroom or, in some cases, a bathroom. Most arrive with arms full of electronics: computers, televisions, PlayStations and the like. If the dorm room isn’t cable-ready or at least wired for Internet they might as well be living in a cave.

California University of Pennsylvania recently spent $121 million on a major residence hall construction project that saw the school raze all of its outdated dorms and replace them with six green-design halls that offer the latest in amenities, including bigger living spaces, Internet, air conditioning and private and semi-private rooms and baths. “The gang showers of the past are gone,” says Angela Burrows, university spokeswoman. Not long ago, the school built Vulcan Village, an off-campus housing complex with cable-ready apartments and its own fitness center, swimming pool and convenience store. Student surveys suggest that such upgrades to student life are a big reason why enrollment has climbed 46 percent in the past six years to reach a record 8,500 students.

Student unions, traditionally the center of on-campus student activity, are also being upgraded to fit the lifestyles of today’s students. A little more than a year ago, the University of Pittsburgh renovated its William Pitt Union, which is housed in the 110-year-old former Hotel Schenley, known during its day as the “Waldorf of Pittsburgh.” This building features grand architecture and accommodated guests ranging from Theodore Roosevelt to Babe Ruth. Now it houses “Nordy’s Place”—a recreation center and arcade voted by the Pitt News as the best place to shoot pool in the neighborhood—and the Gigs Game Center, advertised as the “premier spot for both the leisure and hardcore gamer.”

The fitness center has emerged as another must-have. On many campuses, they are now an integral part of residence halls. On campuses where they are not found in all dorms, schools are building central fitness and recreation facilities to accommodate the student population. Chatham University, for example, recently unveiled a new fitness center that features a 25-foot climbing wall, eight-lane pool, squash courts and a smoothie bar. And Duquesne University students play racquetball and work out on cardio equipment and in weight rooms, fitness studios and exercise classes at the school’s Power Recreation Center, which opened last year.

But the quality of student life is shaped by more than the range of such high-end on-campus amenities. For urban universities, in particular, the off-campus environment can be a major selling point. Every university residing in Pittsburgh promotes the city and the resources it offers—from the arts to the Steelers Nation—as an extension of its campus. The colleges provide easy access to amenities through deals for free public transportation and museum admission, discount tickets to the arts and retail partnerships that allow students to use money in their school accounts for meals at city eateries.

Some are even looking to take the city-as-an-extension-of-campus concept a step further. Carnegie Mellon University, as part of a new 10-year strategic plan, is considering the notion of raising its profile in the city’s Oakland neighborhood—where four universities already create a college-town-like atmosphere—by developing a stretch of lower Craig Street into an extension of its campus. “There is a consensus that, as a landlocked home campus, our desire is to sort of grow thick up Craig Street,” Provost Mark Kamlet told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette last year. “We’d like it to be the Harvard Square for us—a really nice and fun place with retail.”

Perhaps the most ambitious of such plans is the one envisioned at Point Park University, whose decidedly urban Boulevard of the Allies campus rests in a Downtown enclave of mostly office space and parking lots that is drained of human activity after 5 p.m. The small, private, 3,600-student liberal arts university wants to spend an estimated $210 million to create an “academic village” with new student housing and teaching spaces, a small park, a new theater center, new student center, retail and other features. The project is seen as having the potential both to revitalize an area of downtown in need of it and build a more vibrant college corridor that includes Point Park’s neighbor, The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and Duquesne University, a mile or so up the street. “It’s like taking this piece of Downtown and making it our own little world,” says Keith Paylo, Point Park’s acting dean of student affairs.

Whether it’s off-campus attractions, state-of-the-art student housing, fitness centers, campus activities or community service opportunities, the extracurricular environment is viewed not only as a key part of the package students consider when selecting a university, but as a crucial piece of the college experience. For that reason alone, student affairs officials say, there is little support for the concept of an institution stripped bare of such student-life amenities. As NASPA’s Gwendolyn Dungy puts it, “If you want to take such a barebones approach, you might as well start a correspondence course online.”

Jeffery Fraser is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer and former newspaper journalist.



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