Pulse: Trends: The Campus Cocoon

As the boomers’ babies head for college, they’re demanding dorm amenities

Back in the day, when we went to college, you were lucky to have two electrical outlets per dorm room, not to mention a good spot in line on Sunday at the hallway phone. Ahem. Can you say “fitness center”? Fireplace? Pottery studio?

Those are just a few of the frills local campuses are adding to dorms to woo new applicants, who are making living conditions the sine qua non in their college choices. “Colleges don’t want to lose star students to peer institutions based on housing offerings,” says architect Karl Pettit, of the Philadelphia office of the Hillier Group, who has designed residence halls for Rutgers, Philadelphia University and Princeton, among other schools. The days when colleges packed freshmen in like sardines are gone, too. “Students today don’t tend to share a room when they’re growing up,” notes Larry Schall, vice president of administration at Swarthmore College. “They’ve lived for 18 years in their own rooms” — often with their own phones, TVs, computers and bathrooms. Why should they give up all that, even for the Ivy League?

The average square footage per student in a new residence hall these days is 319; compare that to the 20-by-10-foot triple you squeezed into as a frosh. Villanova University has added eight residence halls in the past 12 years, including buildings full of two-bedroom apartments with kitchens, living rooms and one-and-a-half baths. Bryn Mawr College students, reports media relations manager Stacia Friedman, have “very strong feelings” regarding their retrofitted residence halls, which were fifth this year on the Princeton Review’s national list of “Dorms Like Palaces.” (When Skidmore College’s dorms made that list, the number of students accepting offers of admission went up 50 percent.) Bryn Mawr’s website has detailed descriptions of almost every room, including number of dresser drawers, mirrors and windows; sun exposure; and such comments as “fireplace with mantle” and “big closet.” Penn, where some residence halls have cafés, art galleries and dance studios, also gives room info — including window and floor coverings and styles of furniture — online.

In fashion at some schools, against the grain, are what colleges call “gang toilets.” “Private baths seem appealing,” says the Hillier Group’s Pettit. “But we’ve found the bathroom’s function is very complex. When there’s a common bathroom, you have to come out of your room to go in. You meet your floor-mates in the bathroom. The corridors become a social space.” And, he notes, “When it comes to anorexia and bulimia, there’s a better chance of knowing if a student is in trouble if there’s a common toilet.”

Colleges that don’t upgrade dorms risk having students move off-campus — which deprives them of big board bucks — or choose another school altogether. Increasingly, schools are competing with private developers, who are building off-campus student apartments replete with swimming pools and spas, extra security, plenty of storage, and other lures. It’s tough to find a college dorm room without a private phone and free Internet access these days, but sometimes that’s not enough. “We don’t have anything like those schools out West that are like hotels,” says Penn news officer Julie McWilliams. “I like the old. We’re very picturesque. But air conditioning is important to students. My daughter wouldn’t even look at a school without central air.”