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Luxury Student Living and the Rise of the Mid-Sized City

The Loft Right Fullerton Dorms. Image © Michelle Litvin

A major shift happened in the mid-1990s when luxury student housing grabbed a foothold on college campuses across the country. The notion of shared bedrooms or, even worse, shared bathrooms (the horror!), were thrown out the window. Students were demanding their own private spaces, complete with all of the amenities they were accustomed to having at home: larger beds, living rooms, kitchens with granite countertops—and full-sized fridges—and quiet places to study (this is college after all).

What was driving this shift? Was this a reaction to single-bedroom kids growing up in their parents’ homes? Was it a reflection of the booming mid-to late-90s economy? It also began to ask the question, when would the shift end? After graduation, would posh luxury living meet the reality of paychecks, roommates and potentially downtrodden urban apartments?

On-Campus Luxury Living

When on-campus residence halls began looking more like upscale condos than traditional student housing, complete with pools, gyms, balconies, and in some cases, spas, and these next-generation projects catered to the “Student-Customer” generation, a philosophy that puts the consumer, or in this case the student, first. Universities and developers often joined forces to provide enough units for the demand, and student and parents flocked to these luxury residential options.

Today the trend continues. In some urban locations, parents (and sometimes students) typically shell out more than $1,500 a month for “Room.” “Board” is on your own. And say good-bye to walking to dining halls—the student-consumer has access to rooftop BBQs, on-property bar and grills, and in the most extreme cases, room service.

So what happens when students accustomed to such acute pampering graduate. The financial pipeline of parental housing subsidy ends, the reality of a paycheck sets in, and living on a budget leads to comprises as to where money is being spent. Housing, gadgets, automobiles and experiences are all negotiated. While university housing trends suggest young people prefer personal space and ownership, the exact opposite is taking place in the real world.

Enter the sharing economy. Today, there is an app for sharing almost anything: from textbooks, to apartments, to garden space, and even ladders. Ride sharing is everywhere. University graduates are actually choosing to forego car ownership, which for 18 to 34 year olds is down 30% from the previous generation. Smart phone technology has engendered a more personalized existence, along with a smaller ownership foot print.

Given these trends, it would make sense that after graduation, smaller, more personal spaces would be more desirable. Especially when combined with a preference for more walkable, urban environments. But having experienced “luxury living” at their parents’ homes, and continuing on campus, graduates often enter the work force with expectations of extreme comfort.

The Renaissance of the Mid-size City

It is proven that the No. 1 reason a recent graduate chooses their job is not the company or the opportunity, but the city in which the job is located. And I would contend that these decisions are reinforced by the type of residence the recent graduate can afford to live in.

For those graduates that relocate, or perhaps stay in, our most vibrant (and expensive) cities, such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, or LA, they often compromise big-time when it comes to the lap of luxury they have become used to. An entry-level salary, if you’re lucky, will get you a run-down three-bedroom flat; maybe a walk-up mid-rise; and most definitely, gasp, roommates. And where did the lazy river go? The social mixers and in-unit laundry?

If I pull all this together and form a comprehensive understanding of the recent graduate’s mindset—infatuated with the sharing economy, preferences for walkability, sense of community, proximity to urban amenities and nightlife, and most importantly, an expectation of “luxury” living—I feel safe concluding that big city living is out of reach for a significant number of young people entering the workforce. This lifestyle cannot be sustained in New York or even Chicago. And new data from the Pew Research Center illustrates that millennials are turning smaller, more affordable cities like Denver, Austin, Kansas City, and Providence into boomtowns.

It should come as no surprise at these cities are investing heavily in light rail, walkable neighborhood districts, and densification. They also offer access to shared car services, an active nightlife, great affordable restaurants and shopping. And when combined with lower housing costs, it’s no surprise they are quickly becoming cities of choice for recent graduates looking for a place to maintain their lifestyles and their preference for an urban experience.

Call it the renaissance of the mid-sized city, or call it the revolt of the high-rent district; or even call it the expansion of luxury student living across the country—it is once again evidence of academia impacting the lives we all live in.

David Broz co-leads Gensler’s education and culture practice. He uses a research-based approach to design educational environments in response to today’s digital-native students. His conversations with administrators, professors, and futurists have led him to publish several studies that show how space can support learning and transform the overall campus experience. Contact him at david_broz@gensler.com.

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