When Danielle Ratner, an incoming senior at Syracuse University in New York, moved into Sadler Hall her freshman year, one of the first things she noticed was a shortage of electrical outlets. Built in 1960, the 471-bed coed dorm had plenty of social spaces, including a recreation center and dining hall. But the big challenge? Finding enough outlets to plug in the laptops, printers, game consoles, televisions, iPod docks, and cell phone chargers she and her fellow students brought with them to campus.
“The dorms were just older, and today, with technology being more common, everything needs a plug,” says Ratner, a 21-year-old psychology major. “You walk into a typical dorm room today, and you might see 40 cords.”
That's not an exaggeration in student housing accommodations where each student brings his or her own personal technology suite to campus—and wants every gadget available at all times. In rooms with four students, the impact is exponential. “It actually was a really big issue when we all first moved in,” Ratner says.
With enough extension cords, power strips, and outlet adapters, Ratner and her fellow Orangemen were able to make due. But the seemingly harmless shortage of outlets in Sadler Hall illustrates a fundamental aspect about student housing and technology today. Namely, these students expect to be able to use any and all technology at their disposal, and they want each piece individually tailored and accessible for their own personal use. While common areas are still important, today's students increasingly want to work, play, even socialize without ever leaving their rooms.
SMART SERVICES For such savvy 18-year-olds, it no longer suffices to offer a few phone jacks and cable connections. Student housing for the Echo Boom set must provide high-speed Internet access and tricked out amenities.
Consider recent offerings from Educational Housing Services, a student housing manager of more than 5,000 beds and 11 residences throughout New York City. Matias Pagola, the company's chief technology officer, says the company provides flat-panel televisions and DVD players in each room, with easy-to-access connection ports so students can conveniently hook up their Wii or Xbox 360. The company provides individual Internet access via a cable modem for each student, alleviating the need to share a wireless signal with a download-happy roommate, as well as individual phone lines and cable packages. All of it is priced into the rent in order to provide what students expect today: everything.
“Basically, they want [what] they have back home—their own phone line and number, their own TV, their own cable with digital, onscreen programming guides, and of course, their own high-speed Internet,” Pagola says. “Over the years, we've learned that these are not optional amenities. They simply have to be included.”
In fact, according to Houston-based J Turner Research, slow Internet was the biggest gripe in a recent survey of 7,648 student residents. What's more, nearly three-quarters of the students (72 percent) who complained about their Internet service said they would not renew their leases. “Student housing properties lose leases when the Internet is slow,” says Joseph Batdorf, president at J Turner.
Ratner agrees. She was born in 1987 and was just 7 years old when she first used the Internet—she can't remember a time when it didn't exist. “I can't imagine life without [the Internet],” she says. Even during a semester abroad in Spain, she stayed in touch with family and friends over Skype, an Internet-enabled VoIP phone application, and socialized online with classmates through Facebook. As such, fast, reliable Internet access was one of her top apartment search criteria when looking for off-campus housing her junior year.
And it's not just about giving students great access in their rooms, either—you've got to give them access to technology in a social setting as well. “With all the development on college campuses in the last 10 years, we're now competing against spaces that look less like single-block dormitories and more like Starbucks,” says Michael Burnette, vice president of information technology at Atlanta-based developer Place Properties, which has built more than 13,000 beds of student housing in the last decade. “In the student housing world, the computer lab is becoming the cyber café. It's there, it's convenient, and it's social.”
Of course, the current spectrum of student housing technology is also a harbinger of what the broader multifamily industry can expect in the future: tech-savvy residents who want it all and won't settle for less. “This demographic is not going to take a step backwards when they graduate to conventional housing,” says Leslie Turner, student living product manager at Carrollton, Texas-based software provider RealPage. “The larger multifamily industry is going to need to provide more access to technology and the ability to interact with the property management company online.”
Jill Brink, supervisor of property application services at Irving, Texas-based JPI Student Living, which has developed 30,000 beds at 52 student properties, says students demand the ability to interact electronically and retain that expectation when they move into conventional apartments. “I don't think they want to see our faces,” Brink says. “They want to do everything online. Being able to provide that is a business requirement.” That connectivity is an expectation in other areas of campus life as well. Today's students also expect Internet-enabled services. Take Dayton, Ohio-based ASI Campus Laundry Solutions, which provides laundry and vending machine services to colleges and universities. At Ohio State University, for instance, students can monitor the availability of washers and dryers from their rooms—or receive a text message on their cell phones when a machine is available—so they don't have to waste a trip to the basement. And they're not alone—Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., are among other universities offering the service. “It's the next best thing to having a robot come into their rooms, pick up their dirty clothes, and do their laundry for them,” says ASI president David Goldenberg. In the laundry room itself, students don't use coins; instead, they check their student I.D. cards into a magnetic reader and pay as they would for a meal in the cafeteria or supplies at the bookstore. It's the kind of techno-amenity students simply demand. “When kids tour universities today, the quality of the academics is a given,” Goldenberg says. “They want to know about the rec center, the pool, and the computer center. Technology is another area where you're just seeing that expectation—everything, including washers and dryers, has to be wired.” At Syracuse University, the university has taken that charge to heart. Not only does the university spend about $4 million every summer updating its existing dorms—including buildings such as Sadler Hall, where Ratner lived—it recently announced plans for its first new student housing building in 40 years. Opening in August 2009, the 140,000-square-foot, 250-bed residence promises to offer all the new technology students can handle. The goal is to compete for today's tech-savvy and amenity-minded students, according to a statement on the university's Web site. And those are the same young men and women who will soon be renting market-rate apartments. Take Mike High, a graduating senior at the University of West Georgia. Since starting college, he's watched his Internet speed ramp up from just 1 Mb per second to 5 Mb per second today. An avid gamer, he spends hours in front of his 50-inch flat-screen television playing Halo III over his Internet-connected Xbox 360 and taking on other players from around the world. Now a systems administrator for Place Properties, he says he wants to maintain his quality of life—and level of technology—when he moves into his own place. “This [experience] has developed a baseline for me. You get used to living this way for four years in college, and you want the same amenities when you get out,” High says. “I personally wouldn't want to downgrade—that just would not suit me at all.” Wherever he moves to, you can bet he'll be looking for all the technology he can get his hands on—along with plenty of outlets. Joe Bousquin is a freelance writer living outside Sacramento, Calif.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Consider what students really want when it comes to technology.
- They want everything. Students expect every technology amenity they have at home, and they don't want to share with roommates. Tailor your technology offerings to individual needs.
They want it fast. Slow Internet is the No. 1 gripe among college students. Speed it up, or they won't renew the lease.
- They want service without a smile. Pair connectivity with online transactions. Students expect to conduct business electronically; the same will hold when they lease their first apartments.