Thursday, September 10, 2009

Dormez vous in a high-rise university residents' hall?

We're in the midst of the annual rite of move-in, when all those college students descend on the city of Boston. Although I live near several schools - Emerson, Suffolk, Fisher - I'm not in the midst of plenty, as those living in the student 'tos are.

One of the student areas is Allston-Brighton, where a lot of BC and BU students live, and where Harvard Business School is located. But I don't imagine there were too many B-Schoolers in the bit I saw on local TV news last week, when they did their annual rite of reporting on students moving into uninhabitable housing. Not that I would be lacking sympathy for HBS students stuck living in about to be condemned apartments. It's just that I think most of those who got stuck are from BC and BU.

The places they showed were truly gross. Apparently the exiting students weren't familiar with the concept of "broom clean." Or even with a minimal notion of cleanliness. Filthy tubs and toilets, roach-infested kitchens, basements full of rat-ripped trash bags and hundreds of discarded red plastic cups - the ones that scream "kegger."

I real wouldn't expect students moving out to clean the grout with a toothbrush. But flushing the toilet shouldn't be too much to expect. Of course, the students moving in no doubt rented sight/site unseen, or looked at their home sweet home to be when there was a shower curtain sheltering their eyes from three-inch scum buildup, the toilet seat was down, the cracked walls were covered with posters of whoever the hotty pin-up babes of the moment are, and all those messy futons looked kind of inviting.

As usual, the story on the slum dogs of 2009 featured indignant students, grossed-out parents, streets jammed with U-Hauls, and the building's owner shielding his face when he makes the slumlord version of a perp walk.

I am noting this only to contrast it with the scene taking place a couple of miles down Commonwealth Avenue. Down the road, some BU students were moving into a luxury high-rise dorm. This which was reported in The Boston Globe the same day I saw the report on the hapless students trying to figure out how to get their deposits back and where to go with a UHaul full of electronics and futons that's due back at the airport in 5 hours.

BU has erected a 26-floor residence hall that apparently looks and feels more like an upscale hotel.

So luxurious is the 960-bed dorm that parents’ jaws dropped in disbelief when they helped their children move in last week. The suites of singles and doubles, with elegantly furnished common rooms, large private baths, walk-in closets, and floor-length mirrors, resemble nothing like what older generations remember of their college housing - sterile cinder-block boxes with institutional bunk beds and a communal bathroom down the hall.

How well I remember the cinder-block box and communal bath. But, like 99.99% of the students of my by-gone era, I was delighted to be there. Who cared how dreary and drab it was? Undrabbing and undrearying were what Monet prints and Mateus bottles with paper flowers in them were for. Hey, as long as your parents couldn't come barging in on you, what was there not to like? It wasn't like most of us had private rooms or private baths back home.

But BU wanted to put on a bit of the Ritz:

Other amenities include soundproof piano rooms that allow students to practice without disturbing those studying in the 24-hour reading room, which is outfitted with plush adjustable furniture befitting a first-class airport lounge. The laundry room - with washers and dryers programmed to alert students via computer when they are available - overlooks the athletic field and stadium.

BU has put up their Hotel d'Dorm for a number of reasons. They want to be viewed as more of a residence school, and thus need to provide more digs on-campus. They also feel that they need to do something to attract upperclassmen to stay on campus all four years - and apparently the cinder-block-housing doesn't quite do it.

I'm with the students on this point.

I moved out my senior year, to a $150/month apartment off campus. Sure, that was a lot of money, but I had a roommate, and very much enjoyed our little place on Queensberry Street, which we furnished with family cast-offs and made quite homey.

Back at BU, students had to enter a housing lottery to get into the luxe dorm, which, at $13K, costs about $5K more than standard digs.

One student interviewed - a young woman who was the only one of her friends who wasn't "too cheap" to spring for the $5K - is financing the dorm fee with a student loan.

"For the past three years, I lived in the lowest-priced dorms, [she said]. "Being a senior, I’ve worked really hard and I figured I deserve to live in a place "like this.’’

From BU's perspective, having a posh dorm is no doubt a smart move. In addition to keeping more students on campus - and out of the hair and apartment buildings of an often-resentful adjacent neighborhood - they will be able to use this as a competitive differentiator. I'm guessing that facilities like this will become more important schools compete for that declining number of students (and parents) who can "afford" a pricey second-tier private school.

For the students, however, I don't think this is an unalloyed good - and not just because I have an old-timey everyone-should-walk-4-miles-in-a-blizzard-to-an-unheated-one-room-school-house attitude toward how students should live.

Mostly I'm troubled by someone taking a $5,000 loan to pay for it.

Maybe the student quoted has no school debt and figured, what the hell.

Maybe she has so much school debt that she figured, what the hell.

But I can't help but believe that, a couple of years from now, having to pay down a $5K debt that was assumed so that someone could have a nice view of the Boston skyline, and lounge around on trendy furniture in tangerine and mocha walled rooms, won't seem like such a good idea.

Monthly payments on a $5,000 loan at 6% is about $100/month for 5 long years.

Maybe the student will be making such good money, or has no other debt, so this won't be a big deal.

But $100 month to live large for your last two semesters of college?

That's a couple of pretty nice dinners out with friends. It's concert, play, or game tickets. It's something off the sale rack at Ann Taylor's. Over the course of a year, it's a vacation. It's a nicer shower or wedding present, a bunch of baby gifts. It's sending flowers to Mom and Grandma on Mother's Day. It's being able to make a nice charitable donation. It could even be (gulp) pure savings.

Sure, it's not much, but there's still a lot you can do with a hundred bucks.

BU may be plenty smart to have decided on a luxe dorm. And parents who can afford, and choose, to foot this type of bill, well, that's their lookout. But taking on debt to live high in the high-rise?

I'm betting that next year there'll be plenty of buyer's remorse going around.


Joe said...

"BU may be plenty smart to have decided on a luxe dorm. And parents who can afford, and choose, to foot this type of bill, well, that's their lookout. But taking on debt to live high in the high-rise?

I'm betting that next year there'll be plenty of buyer's remorse going around."

Sadly, I disagree.

"Taking on debt to live high" seems to be the American way. These future leaders of America are just getting a jump on things.

Anonymous said...

College is just expensive. Of the 8 schools my daughter applied to, only one gave her a good enough package so she could attend - and she will leave with $68K debt. College is "necessary" but for most of us middle class families is loading our kids up with debt. Now, thank goodness she is a Chem. Eng. major and will come out to a good salary.... I was a commuter student at a state college and graduated with no debt but made $7 an hour. The American Dream does not exist anymore in my opinion.

Thomas Rogers said...

This is not just for private U's. Our public U, built a luxury Type 5(think upscale garden apts) dorm. We had to downgrade the club house so the legislature wouldn't freak out. The next luxury dorms had the upgrades hidden, coffee bars on all floors, cathedral ceilings in the rooms, fitness club equipment, wireless etc. The price up was about $1,000 for nine months, but was less than the private local apartment market, so students got a bargain with a great view.

PS I believe in the public University system. It was a great bargain for me and for my brother who have done alright for ourselves in very different areas of endeavor.