Meeting Campus Advantage president and CEO Michael Peter instantly transports you back to those first days at college: moving into your dorm room, getting to know your roommates and your neighbors, and making that first psychological link to your alma mater via the resident assistant (RA) who lives on your hall and helps guide you and 30 to 40 other wide-eyed students towards the first steps of a four-year journey of self-discovery and social and academic growth. Peter, who was an RA as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin 25 years ago, still exudes the same clean-cut, down-to-earth, and trust-inspiring friendliness that roughly 50,000 RAs embody to encourage and enthuse the three million students who filter through the nation’s colleges and universities every year.
This month, roughly 30,000 of those students will be moving into a Campus Advantage apartment at one of 52 locations in 21 states nationwide—and chances are they’ll be meeting one of the student housing firm’s executives on that very first day. “Move-in day is the most stressful time of the year for both residents and on-site staff,” says Peter of the annual fracas that Campus Advantage typically staggers over a two-to-three-day period and stages with food, drinks, and rest station tents, at times negotiating street closures with municipalities. Three years ago, Peter mandated that every member of the executive team rolls up his or her sleeves to help manage the madness. “So we go on site, moving luggage, meeting parents, and the parents always have an odd look on their faces and typically ask, ‘Who are you?’” Peter says. “Well, I’m the president of the company, and I’m here to help you move in.”
These types of personal touches have been a hallmark of Austin, Texas-based Campus Advantage since the company launched in 2003 to fill a void perceived by Peter and his team in privatized student housing: off-campus apartments with an equal or higher level of resident life services as compared to traditional on-campus residence halls. (The firm does manage three on-campus communities.) “The idea of being able to give students the resources to be successful in their journey has been a core mission of on-campus housing and has been seen as an integral part of the experience at colleges and universities since the development of the Oxford and Cambridge model [of incorporating residence life, sports, clubs, associations, and academics into a holistic model],” says Campus Advantage vice president of residence life Dan Oltersdorf. “To this day, colleges and universities are great at that. What had not been done in our mind very effectively or consistently was transferring that same philosophy to the private world, when we’re serving the same people at the same stage in life with the same needs.”
Originally funded by a second mortgage on Peter’s house, Campus Advantage burst onto the student housing scene in 2003 with three employees and a single management contract on a 571-bed property in Tallahassee, Fla., serving both Florida A&M and Florida State University. The firm quickly won additional management contracts by focusing on high net-worth individuals and mom-and-pop operators who had multifamily real estate near campuses but not the proclivity or interest to run the day-to-day operations of a student housing asset. “We began early on in our formation with a focus on revenues and cash flow,” Peter says of the company’s original growth strategy. “If you had a pulse and a purse and a need for student housing management, we were there.”