So much for the amenities arms race in student housing. After catering to millenials with rock climbing walls, steam rooms, and colored ping pong ball pits, community designers and developers are facing an up-and-coming Gen Z student body that’s less inclined toward amusement parks and much more focused on community design that lends itself to serious academics and a decidedly more mature lifestyle.
Born after 1996 and at most turning 23 years old this year, Gen Z accounts for about 95.5 million people, or one-quarter of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2019, 1.9 million of them graduated from four-year colleges, where they have made and continue to make a significant impact on how student living spaces might be designed by developers for maximum market opportunity.
“Gen Z students are not impressed by superfluous amenities like the lazy river or the never-ending beer pong table,” says Josh Kassing, vice president of design and development at Chicago-based design firm Mary Cook Associates. “They care deeply about academics and having a successful college career and are particular about how their money is spent because they’ve witnessed a wave of millennial graduates drowning in debt.”
Indeed, student housing design experts like Kassing say Gen Z is dismissive of the ostentatious common areas and over-indulgent design allocations initially incorporated into communities to attract and close leases on millennial students.
“With Gen Z, we’ve seen a significant change in price sensitivity when compared to millennial students,” says Derrick Milam, co-founder and chief operating officer of Vie Management, which manages 40,000 beds in markets from Texas to Florida to Michigan. “It doesn’t mean that Gen Z wont pay for value, but they are very tuned in to how housing contributes to the cost of going to school, and there is deeper scrutiny to see that they are getting the most bang for their buck.”
To eliminate superfluous spaces in its communities, Atlanta-based TVS Architecture and Design has teamed with Honeywell to crunch room occupancy data all the way down to what pieces of furniture are being used, and at what frequency. “We’ve all included amenity spaces that go unused because they would sell on the lease walk,” says TVS associate principal Ian Hunter. “That’s about to change, and we expect a huge shift over the next 10 years in the way amenities are approached leading to more market specific, more functional, and limited spaces.
So what does Gen Z want? A near obsession with academics and having a successful college career has catalyzed the need for study spaces beyond the bedrooms, including dedicated and connected communal study rooms, semi-private study areas, and full-on business centers.
“Study space has become the name of the fame and the first thing they are looking for from a community,” says Kassing. “And proximity doesn’t count. They want places in their own building they can go to at any time that are acoustically isolated and blazing with Wi-Fi. We’re also seeing increased interest in specialized working areas like architectural labs and studio-like spaces.”
Gen Z is also looking for more privacy than their party-minded predecessors. Catalyzed by a greater interest in health and safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the move away from group communal living has Gen Z students on the lookout for one- and two-bedroom living options, and more often than not are coming in with roommates they already know and feel comfortable with. “Preference for ones and twos was a trend already but has accelerated with the pandemic,” Milam says. “And for those coming in alone but looking for shared spaces, the requests for what they want in a roommate are becoming ever more detailed on health and lifestyle.”
The pandemic has also boosted demand for self-contained, one-stop communities that include a variety of fitness, vending, and food service options. With pressure on pricing in other areas, Vie Management has found success driving revenue by launching cafe and food service at some communities, and is seeing higher profitability from vending areas as well, particularly near colleges that have moved to virtual instruction. “The unique dynamic of the pandemic has again accelerated resident demands,” says Milam. “And that means both internet usage and food consumption are way up.”
That doesn’t mean Gen Z aren’t embracing their own generational idiosyncrasies when it comes to communal space. Increasingly, inbound students aren’t just bringing thrift and studiousness to the campus—they’re bringing their pets, too.
“Location has become a huge drive as Gen Z are typically embracing walkability versus car ownership, but what student housing is really calling for now is dog amenities, including dog spas, play areas, and walking runs,” says Hunter. “It’s a drastic departure and something that would have been absurd just a couple of years ago. But it shows that Gen Zers are specific, know what they want, and are more savvy when it comes to cost. They are going to drive new student housing design heavily and will be ever more difficult to satisfy than the millennials that came before them.”