Dorms no longer the norm

Housing: College quarters used to be standard-issue, but schools are now offering a variety of options at a variety of prices.

October 04, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

When Amy Burke transferred to Towson University from Harford Community College this fall, she wasn't about to subject herself to a college dormitory.

Instead, she got a room in a deluxe apartment at University Village, the new privately run student housing complex just off campus. For $594 a month - about $1,400 more per school year than a regular Towson dorm - she has her own bedroom, a shared kitchen and living room, plus access to the complex's heated pool, saunas, tanning beds and gym.

"It's a little on the expensive side, but it's a lot nicer" than other options, said Burke, 20, a junior from Bel Air. "You're paying for the appearance, for how nice it is."

College housing, once one of society's great equalizers, is increasingly becoming yet another status symbol. Where students of all backgrounds used to have to endure the same bunk beds, cinder-block halls and communal bathrooms, today's students can choose more luxurious arrangements - if they or their parents have the means.

A growing number of colleges now offer different levels of student housing at different prices that can vary by as much as $2,000 a year. Meanwhile, a boom in private student housing on or near campuses has lured away students willing to pay more for amenities and privacy.

The trend worries some college officials, who see it as undermining a central aim of university life: to expose students to classmates of different backgrounds, in an atmosphere free of social rank. If colleges charge more for the best housing, they warn, it's likely that segregation by income will follow.

"When you begin to charge different rates, some issues start to come into play," said Gail Edmonds, the dean of students at Goucher College in Towson, which charges all students the same room fee. "It's one of the things that's central to a liberal arts education: caring about other people, having a perspective that's inclusive."

Of course, the quality of a college's housing has always varied from room to room. Under the old model, though, most colleges charged students the same housing rate, and assigned the best rooms based on seniority or lotteries - not on how much students were able to pay.

And while some students have always chosen to move to off-campus pads, the proliferation of private complexes on or near campuses has meant greater clustering of students willing to pay more to leave dorms.

The move toward wider housing options and variable pricing is welcomed by many students, who believe it's proper to charge more for the best housing.

"It would be unfair if you had to pay as much as someone with a nice apartment, and you had a crummy one," said Robin Regan, a Towson sophomore from Laurel living in a regular dorm.

The trend is most visible at public colleges. Many states, including Maryland, now bar dorms from being built with state bonds, encouraging schools instead to ally with private developers to build housing.

These new buildings tend to be nicer than traditional dorms, and colleges and the private companies that manage them as a result charge more.

At Towson, Millennium Hall, which opened in 2000 on university grounds under the management of Capstone Properties, charges students $5,596 each academic year for a single room in its four-person apartments.

University Village, built on the grounds of Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital adjacent to Towson and managed by American Campus Communities, charges $594 a month for a room in a four-bedroom apartment, $654 for a room in a two-bedroom, and $754 for a one-bedroom. Leases run for a full calendar year.

Towson's regular dormitories are substantially cheaper: doubles cost $1,908 each semester, roughly $500 a month, and singles cost $2,245 a semester, or about $550 a month. The school also offers university-owned apartments that run from $1,940 a semester to $2,395 a semester.

Prices also vary at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where most new housing has been built in partnership with developer John C. Erickson. Students pay $4,600 each school year for a double in the two newest dorms, which include living rooms, $150 more than doubles in the older dorms. Singles in any building cost an extra $400.

Students can also pay $4,840 a school year for a single in a university-owned apartment, or $6,900 for a spot in one of the apartments in the new buildings run by Capstone on the edge of campus.

The difference between rates has narrowed in the past year, said UMBC residential life director Nancy Young,because officials worried that housing might become segregated by income.

"We were concerned about access and affordability," she said.

Students played down such concerns, saying that considerations like friendships and convenience figure more in their housing decisions than economics. Several students said they had chosen to live in doubles in the college's bland, 1970s-era dorms rather than pay $400 more for singles not because of the cost, but because they liked having roommates.

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