Demographic Impacts on Student Housing Design

  • JULY 31, 2015
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It’s the middle of summer and most college students are likely busy working their summer jobs or otherwise enjoying these long days of sunshine (okay, more like rainstorms here in central Ohio). Those of us who work in the field of higher education, know that summer may mean quieter campuses, but it doesn’t mean an end to our work. As we prepare for the fall semester, let’s take a look at the changing demographics on campuses across our country and how that affects student housing.

Stadium Centre at Florida State UniversityAs college certificates and degrees become more important to finding success, enrollment in American colleges and universities has grown significantly over the last two of decades. With that growth, the demographic base has begun to shift from the traditional definition of "student" and there are now record numbers of non-traditional domestic students and affluent international students attending schools across the country. When planning projects and programs on campus, including student housing, it is important to consider how best to meet their unique needs.

The domestic student population has become more diverse, including older students that are working to cover college costs and/or raising children. These challenges increase their housing insecurity. According to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Office of Policy Development and Research, in their February 2015 periodical titled, Insights into Housing and Community Development Policy, “students’ housing challenges likely contribute” to large gaps in graduation rates between low-income and higher-income students. The question of where these students live while attending college, or rather what they can afford, is an important one to discuss.

The increases in the number of international students, according to a March 24, 2015 article in The Wall Street Journal titled, International Students Stream Into U.S. Colleges, have been “prompted by the rise of an affluent class in China and generous scholarships offered by oil-rich Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia.” The rise of these more affluent populations overseas has coincided with domestic budget problems. Because international students typically pay higher out-of-state fees, institutions are motivated to find ways to recruit and retain these individuals. While affordability is less of an issue with this subgroup of students, they do have several hurdles that must be overcome, beginning with language barriers and cultural differences.

While it’s widely accepted that there are many benefits to living on or near campus, student housing design is not a one-size-fits-all solution. Besides trying to accommodate an ever more diverse population, on-campus housing stock has not kept pace with the increases in enrollment. Facing budget shortfalls, institutions have had many problems maintaining or modernizing their aging residence halls. Utilizing private developers is an ongoing solution that provides a high-end product at minimal cost to the institution. However, this solution is not without risks. Unless there are agreements established to control costs, much of the new housing is likely to be out of reach of lower income students and could create an unintended socioeconomic division among the resident population. Also, without the support of student and residence life programs, many students could get overlooked and universities may miss their chance to retain these students.

The shifting demographics at our nation’s universities and colleges present challenges to the traditional methods utilized by the industry to support a student’s higher education experience. However, there are many opportunities to respond to these challenges with creative solutions that can help ensure our existing and future investments in higher education are more effective.


Marcy graduated from The Ohio State University with a B.S. in industrial design. She is passionate about creating quality projects for low income and under-served populations and loves Pixar movies.