Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Too cool for school (or, rather, for dorms)

Well, the latter-day privateers have taken over a lot of prisons, KP in the military, and an increasing amount of schooling, so why not start privatizing college dorms?

Of course, there have long been private accommodations for students. In my day, they were run by those called “slumlords” and, in my recall, none of them offered the ability to “lounge around a resort-style pool in private cabanas.”

No, back in the day, we had to deal with 1920’s stoves that always seemed on the verge of exploding, crazy neighbors screaming at each other in languages we couldn’t recognize, heating pipes that woke us up in the middle of the  night with what sounded like a Gene Krupa solo turn, and cockroaches scuttling out of our toasters when we popped an English muffin in.

Today’s students, of course, could not be expected to put up with what we were, in truth, delighted to contend with. This is how students willing to forsake the “comforts” of the shared 10x15 cement block dorm room expected to live in their first foray into the independent adult world.  Instead, they:

…practice their golf swings at the putting green and meditate in a Zen garden. Videogamers sip complimentary coffee while playing "Call of Duty: Black Ops II" on a multiscreen television wall. (Source: Wall Street Journal Online.)

At least if they’re students at the University of Central Florida, where the upscale University House has been developed by Inland American Communities Group.

At the University of Central Florida, the golf swinging, Zen gardening, and video gaming apparently don’t detract from the academic purpose of the school, which was recently ranked the least rigorous school in the country.

And it obviously appeals to some prospective students:

Both students and administrators say housing has become a big factor in college selection, increasingly trumping degree programs or beloved sports teams. Mark Sampson says his daughter took "about two looks at the campus" of University of Florida in Gainesville and declared it too old. She picked University of Central Florida and hopes to move into University House this fall.

Nice! You can go to the state’s flagship university, or you can matriculate at the place with the posh digs. Lack of rigor be damned, full cabana lounging ahead!

UCF isn’t the only college where upscale lodging’s sprouting up. Michigan State, Arizona State, and Texas A&M are among other schools where happenin’ living’s happenin’.

Nor is Inland American the only developer hopping into this lucrative business:

Developers say that colleges provide a steady stream of new customers every year, and that students—and their parents—are willing to pay for luxury amenities.

American Campus Communities and Campus Crest Communities are public companies – or, shall we say, communities - that are helping move college living from 3 hots  and a cot to granite countertops on which to rest your pizza boxesimage.

And if they don’t want to bother whistling in Domino’s or Papa John’s, they can hang out in a place like the bistro at a “community” for Sam Houston University students.

For one student, the best part about being off campus in luxe housing is the privacy, and the ability to “take a five-hour shower and not worry about it, or take a bubble bath." After which, I guess, you come out nice and relaxed and prepared for an all night bull session on the meaning of life.

Among the amenities that off-campus housing may offer are an ice-skating rink, tanning rooms, poolside jumbo screen, a pet-washing station, a 300-foot-long lazy river, and at Texas Aggie, something called a “cornhole pit”. (I don’t really want to know what goes on there.)

The business is booming because all the later wave baby boomers’ kids are forming an echo boom. And all those later wave baby boomers obviously want their kids to live it up.

There are a couple of downsides to this particular version of a real estate boom:

"Most of these kids are going to have a step down in lifestyle when they have to enter the working-world environment after they graduate," says John E. Vawter, principal of Capstone Collegiate Communities, which developed [several of the “communities” featured in the article].

What a shock they’re in for when they smash their first cockroach.

But that’s a downside for the consumer. Caveat emptor, etc.

But there’s also the downside for those slapping these places up.

Like how crummy and outdated they’re going to look in a couple of years after revolving door packs of students swarm in and out. At least with cement block dorm rooms, never in style, never out of style.  And then there’s the likely coming contraction in the number of families who can afford to send their kids to away college for four years, let alone cough up extra for Zen gardens, tanning beds, and cornhole pits.

Oh, what a world we live in.

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