Campus Comforts

May 1, 2001
Colleges and universities are sprucing up housing, dining and other services to make campuses more appealing to students.

Nearly all of the 2,800 students at St. Olaf College live on the Northfield, Minn., campus all four years they attend the school. So administrators decided “if students are going to live here, let's make the campus more livable.”

That meant giving students more than just a classroom education. It meant providing comfortable places for students to shop, play games, listen to music, sip cappuccinos, or just hang out.

With the help of a $26 million donation, the college built Buntrock Commons, a 175,000-square-foot student center that includes dining facilities, a bookstore, post office, theater, coffee shop, night club, meeting rooms, student-activity offices and other space.

“It has definitely met or exceeded all our expectations,” says Tim Schroer, director of the commons.

St. Olaf is one of many colleges and universities that are enhancing the services and amenities offered students. Schools that persuade students to spend their leisure time — and dollars — on campus can increase revenues as well as strengthen the overall quality of life on campus.

What students want

The young women and men arriving on college campuses these days have different expectations than their parents did a generation ago — or even than their older sibling did a few years ago.

“These days it's very difficult to find students who didn't have their own bedrooms at home,” says Jon Lewis, executive director of auxiliary services at the University of Maine (UM) in Orono.

So UM and many other schools are remodeling their student residences from traditional double-occupancy rooms to suite-style arrangements with single rooms. Schools also are routinely wiring residence halls for computers and Internet access to meet the desires of students and the academic demands of their professors.

Students on campus are more likely than before to have access to an automobile, so if something is not available on campus, they have no qualms about driving elsewhere to find it. In response, many schools are bringing more consumer options to campus — convenience stores, coffee shops, brand-name retail establishments and more.

Today's students also are less likely to be satisfied with a one-system-fits-all style of meal delivery.

“They want more flexibility so they don't only have to eat in traditional cafeterias,” says Lewis.

Many schools are allowing some of the money allocated for dining services to be spent outside the traditional dining halls at other establishments on campus, or even at off-campus stores and restaurants. The type of dining options a student has chosen and the amount of money available to be spent on food — at the dining hall or elsewhere — can be stored easily on magnetic stripes or computer chips that are routinely included as part of a student's identification card.

Although it's unlikely that students would choose to attend a particular college based on the dining options offered, it can significantly affect how students view their experiences on campus, says Lewis.

“Food service can turn into a negative if you're not aggressive and don't keep it comparable to other schools.”

Creating community

St. Olaf officials wanted their campus to have a feeling of community, but the facilities available didn't always make that possible.

“We sorely lacked space,” says Schroer. “Students wanted places to hang out, to see and be seen. There weren't places to do that.”

Buntrock Commons was designed to recreate the feel of a small town, where members of the community regularly convened to eat, conduct business, socialize and have fun. It opened in November 1999.

“We wanted it to be like an old-fashioned village commons,” says Schroer.

After studying campus traffic patterns, school officials decided to build the commons at a spot that saw the most student traffic — between the college's library and its chapel.

Going against a trend of providing students many dining options, St. Olaf has centralized its operation in one large facility. That decision was a direct response to student wishes.

“We had architects tell us: ‘You don't want to do that,’” says Schroer. “But our students told us they wanted to eat together. A number of the faculty and staff eat in the dining room. There is a lot of community interaction.”

The building also includes the campus post office, where all students, faculty and staff members receive their mail. That ensures that all members of the school community are regular visitors to the commons.

To accentuate the view of the building as a place for leisure and socializing, St. Olaf has decided not to schedule any regular academic classes in Buntrock Commons — despite the requests of faculty members who want to take advantage of the building's multimedia capabilities.

“The building is meant to complement the academics,” says Schroer. “It is geared to the other aspects of campus life.”

Sidebar: More than academics

At Stanford University in Stanford, Calif., most students who get into the highly competitive school — only about 15 percent of those who apply as freshmen are admitted — reside in campus housing. Students don't have many options. Finding affordable off-campus student housing in the pricey Bay Area is difficult.

Even with merely adequate housing offered, Stanford would attract more than enough students to fill its classrooms and residence halls. Still, the university wanted students to remember their years in residence halls warmly and not as an experience they had to endure to get a Stanford education.

So the university decided it needed to upgrade all of its housing — some 80 residences that accommodate more than 9,000 graduate and undergraduate students. The 17-year project began in 1993 and is nearly halfway complete. It is expected to cost at least $185 million.

“Students want to be here for the academic experience,” says Keith Guy, associate vice provost for student housing and dining services. “But we do want students to leave the university with a positive regard for the university and their whole experience. We've made great strides in the last five years.”

The improvements include infrastructure upgrades to plumbing and wiring, and new carpeting. Each room is receiving new modular furniture to give students the flexibility to lay out their rooms as they prefer.

“They can customize a lot of different ways,” says Guy. “Things like lofting their beds, which they were doing anyway, even though it went against the fire code.”

Each room is wired to have one computer port per person to allow access to the Internet.

Stanford also has revamped its food services to appeal more to students' tastes. Instead of a traditional “cook-and-park” system, where food sits on a steam table after it is prepared, the school has retrofitted its kitchens to allow for “just-in-time” preparation, where meals are prepared in full view of the customer.

“People can see the pizzas being baked and the burgers being grilled,” says Guy.

One dining facility on campus transforms itself in the evening to a “cyber cafe,” where students can plug their laptops into computer ports and surf the Internet while drinking coffee.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. 

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