The kitchen area of a newly renovated dorm at Eastern Kentucky University
Two years ago, Joseph Eckl had the choice to stay at home or live on campus as an incoming University of Louisville freshman. He had his own room growing up and shared a bathroom with his younger brother. So, when he decided to move into UofL’s Community Park residence hall, he knew it would be a major transition.
“It was the first time that I ever shared a room, and I had a roommate that never said anything or did anything,” Eckl said. “I never realized how much I valued having my own room until then. Other than that, and the occasional homesick feeling, the transition wasn’t that big of a deal.”
But when his freshman year was drawing to an end, the computer information systems major knew he wanted to get out of a dorm and into a more independent situation.
“I was looking for an apartment and already had found some roommates. I wanted to live somewhere nearby and preferred somewhere new, and University Pointe offered both,” he said. “My favorite part of living here is the new apartment building environment; that’s a rarity when you’re in college.”
Not as rare as one might think, according to UofL Campus Housing Director Julie Weber.
“Housing has become quite a competitive advantage on college campuses. Some surveys and studies across the country will tell you that housing is in the top three or four criteria by which students make college and university decisions,” Weber said. Availability of major, quality and reputation of a program, and dining facilities make up the other criteria.
“It’s become a big decision factor for students, and a university has to be able to compete on all facets of what students are making decisions on,” she said.
To stay competitive, UofL is joining higher education institutions across the country in building and renovating student living spaces into upscale apartments or suites, complete with swimming pools, fitness centers, fully equipped kitchens with full-sized appliances, private bathrooms, granite countertops, and many other amenities that weren’t available to college kids some 10 years ago.
This year, two such living communities opened on UofL’s campus. Owned and operated by private companies (but still contracted to abide by the university’s rules and living regulations), these buildings offer high-end living to students during their time at the Louisville campus.
In the lobby of The Nine apartments at the University of Louisville
The Nine, for example, even has bluetooth speakers in each bathroom’s showerhead.
“We joke that we call it The Nine because it’s done to the nines,” said The Nine General Manager Brittany Westerfield. “We do want it to feel like home here. We don’t want it to be just a place where they rest their head. We want it to be that this is their home for the next two years, three years, four years.”
Junior Alex Birch chose to call The Nine home. The sports administration major moved to Louisville this year from Connecticut to join UofL’s cheer team.
“I love it. Compared to up north, the prices are really cheaper, and just in general, I would have never been able to find something like this up there. And it’s beautiful,” Birch said. “The rooms are very state-of-the-art; this is a huge upgrade for me.”
Outside the rooms, Birch and her neighbors can enjoy a fully equipped fitness center, yoga room, four large-screen televisions, self-serve Starbucks coffee bar, gaming areas, swimming pool, outdoor fire pits and outdoor television screens for special events.
“I didn’t expect to live like this as a college kid,” she said.
Birch has already signed a contract to live at The Nine for the 2017-2018 academic year. Likewise, Eckl renewed his contract to stay at University Pointe.
Since University Pointe’s amenities are similar to those at The Nine, staying there was a no-brainer for him.
“Yeah, I’m happy with my decision,” he said.
Both Eckl and Birch say that while they appreciate the finer things offered in their new homes, they also take advantage of the state-of-the-art study rooms with large computer monitors and whiteboards, as well as on-site computer labs.
University of Louisville's The Nine apartments lobby
“Our rule as an institution and as a housing department is to make sure that living on or near campus is not just about the swimming pools or the shiny objects,” Weber said. “At the core, all the time, is to make sure that around the swimming pool and shiny objects, those things that we know will help students be successful in college are maintained.”
University Pointe General Manager Rae Ann Pearson said surveys have indicated that students request more study spaces over posh features.
“These [study rooms] are pretty popular, and they’re occupied way more than what you would think,” Pearson said. “These amenities get used more than the game room, more than the fire pit.”
Additionally, Weber said national data has shown that students who live on or near campus are more likely to be academically successful.
“Our own data here at UofL supports that,” she said. “Those students do the best on three academic criteria that we track: retention, GPA and the number of credit hours completed.”
Weber said on-campus students also are more likely to use the library, tutoring services and other academic resources.
“I don’t think there’s any substitute for sitting down with a group of your classmates” or walking over to a professor’s office when a student has particular questions about a course, Weber added. “It’s helping them get to graduation, and that’s the most important thing for us.”
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A bedroom in UofL's University Pointe
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Kitchen space in one of the units of University Pointe at UofL
UofL now has a mandatory live-on-campus policy for first-year students to give those students that opportunity for success, Weber said. All incoming freshmen are assigned to either traditional dormitories (Miller Hall, Threlkeld Hall or Unitas Tower) with two-bed rooms, community bathrooms and a common kitchen for the entire building; or dorms with suites (Community Park and Louisville Hall), which offer more privacy, including private and semiprivate bathrooms.
First-year students also have the chance to apply for UofL’s Living Learning and Themed Communities, where students with similar majors and interests can reside together in a shared environment.
Once they’ve completed their first year, students have the option to move into the more posh living options UofL now offers.
You might think these students would have a rude awakening once they reach the real world and realize their “luxurious” living is at an end. But Weber disagrees, saying that students “get it” that life will ask more accountability and responsibilities of them.
Pearson added that University Pointe teaches students how to communicate and take control over their own living spaces.
“Even though we’re on campus, it’s still a real apartment building,” she said. “You have to place a work order for us to come to your unit and, if not, we won’t know what’s going on. We don’t send housekeepers in there to clean up after you or anything like that.”
Since it is an apartment building, students must pay rent, and prices vary from year to year. While cable, internet and utilities are included in the rent, if students in an apartment go over a cap amount, they must split the overage.
Weber said UofL strives for affordability, notwithstanding the newer, higher-end living arrangements.
“One of our goals is to make sure we keep a range of affordable options,” Weber said. “These high-end options can get fairly pricey, although our market has a lot of competition in it right now.”
Unlike most apartment buildings in the real world, however, all UofL resident buildings offer 24-hour security and protection. The campus is under the jurisdiction of University of Louisville Police, and all properties are locked 24 hours a day with card access given only to residents of each particular building. The front desks are staffed around the clock, and all students must pass the front desk every time they go in the building.
Eckl said if he were living anywhere else near campus, he would be concerned for his safety.
“[But] all the news I hear about are in properties that are older, less nice, or farther away from the center of campus. Living in a brand-new building practically on campus, I feel as safe as I ever have,” he said.
Spiffing Up Statewide
The University of Louisville is not the only higher education institution in Kentucky that’s upgrading its living quarters to compete for students. Universities across the Commonwealth are building new, higher-end apartments to give students more amenities while they complete their degrees.
University of Kentucky
Two new buildings will open this year on the University of Kentucky’s campus offering slightly different living arrangements than previous UK students have experienced.
University Flats is scheduled to open in August and will offer upperclassmen and graduate students two- and four-bedroom apartments, complete with full kitchens, granite countertops, full-sized beds, closets and high-speed internet and cable.
The new Lewis Hall, also slated to open later this year, will offer similar amenities, and will house the new Lewis Honors College.
Penny Cox, UK’s director of Housing Project Implementation & New Strategies, said students may not have swimming pools outside their doors, but they do have an environment of study rooms, collaborative learning and other programs that connect housing and academics.
“We think as an institution we stand up pretty well with other schools in the state,” Cox said. “We’re connecting our ultimate mission, which is to graduate that student with a diploma and high credentials so that when they leave, they get a job.”
Eastern Kentucky University
The assistant dean of students and student affairs at Eastern Kentucky University acknowledges that competition for future students is high, but says the institution is holding its own when it comes to posh, new offerings for its resident students.
April Barnes said two new buildings—New Hall B and New Martin Hall—will open in the fall, offering suite-style, two-bedroom units with a shared bathroom. Both buildings also will have a limited number of so-called “super suites,” complete with a kitchenette and two full bathrooms.
Barnes said the goal is to make sure the school is meeting this generation’s needs.
“They have different needs than when their parents went to school,” she said. “[These rooms] provide enough privacy, and it’s not the old community bath style. It provides a more intimate setting that is a bit more comfortable for our students.”
Western Kentucky University
WKU’s Student Life Foundation, which oversees campus housing, has just launched a 10-year master plan that includes the fall 2018 opening of a new building, Hilltopper Hall, and the demolition and replacement of two other residence halls—Barnes-Campbell and Bemis-Lawrence.
Brian Kuster, WKU’s vice president for student affairs and executive director of the Student Life Foundation, said Hilltopper Hall will have suite-style rooms with private baths. “Most of our students today have not had to share a bathroom growing up, so we’re trying to meet their needs and what their expectations are when they come to college,” Kuster said. “As our students’ expectations change, we want to make sure the options change with them.”
However, Kuster said housing plans focus on providing more spaces for academic support—study rooms, 24-hour dining, group-study areas, and even what Kuster calls a “makerspace,” a multipurpose room where students can work on bigger projects, whether it be art or architecture.
“It’s really about finding those niches to study either individually or in groups,” Kuster said. “University housing is really more than a place to live. It is part of the education process. Students are in class for the most part… But a lot of time is spent in the residence halls, and we can provide them not only with study skills but also social skills, and that’s really what [on-campus living] is all about.”