Plugged In

Adrienne Qualls chose to stay in the housing system at Indiana University her senior year - and with good reason. Administrators there had just reopened Wilkie Quad as apartment suites complete with a full kitchen and a laundry facility behind each door. Why move when you could stay put and whip up beef stroganoff, marinated chicken and rice, even bake a cake or two in your spare time?

"Plus, I was able to roll out of bed and be in class in two minutes - that was nice," says Qualls.

Across the country, experts say, the marketing ploy continues to work its same magic. "It's a two-pronged issue," assures Ramona Lucas, vice president and senior interior designer at Capstone Development in Birmingham, Ala. "If you can offer housing with more amenities than the students are used to, you'll recruit them and then retain them." Of course, today's college students grew up in some very impressive rooms, so put these items on your short list.

Refrigerator: Think 18- to 21-cubic foot models, white, with a small freezer and icemaker as your base. Investing in a side-by-side is overkill both in size and energy costs, Lucas says. Students like Qualls, who paid a fine for leaving so much food behind in the fridge when she moved out, aren't the norm; expect these appliances to store left-over pizza, bottled water, luncheon meat. On the other hand, the bar-sized versions that students rented in the olden days won't cut it today, either.

Cook top: It always makes the list of "must haves," but don't get your feelings hurt if the current microwave generation of youth rarely turns it on. The good news: when the cook top's use almost always boils down to warming up cans of soup, it's not likely to expire soon from overuse.

Microwave: Students value convenience, so the more preprogrammed buttons on these models, the more excited they are to move in. Some university officials, however, have noticed this particular appliance has a way of disappearing between residents, so they're beginning a trend of their own: we'll provide a space under the counters, and you bring the microwave.

Occasionally, a university will request Lucas leave out the microwaves as a way to encourage students to buy the cafeteria meal plans. They needn't fret - vice president for higher education at Lawler-Wood in Knoxville, Tennessee, Archie Ellis' experiences show these kitchens receive the most use between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Savvy institutions modify the meal plans down from 19 meals a week to 10 or 15 to keep revenue flowing and ditch the lighter breakfast crowds.

Countertop/Sink/Disposal: It's part of the standard package and, from that standpoint, non-negotiable. Because these items tend to take a beating, it's best to upgrade from, say, a Formica brand to a solid surface if you want to save money in the long term, suggests Ellis.

Oven: This appliance enjoys "nice to have" status, but if you choose to leave it out, the microwave model had better be a workhorse, says Greg Blais, senior vice president of Ambling Companies in Valdosta, Georgia. Like the cook top, some students love it - and some don't know it exists to form an opinion. "When we turn over units in the summer, there's always the room where we open the oven and still see the instructions sitting inside," Blais laughs.

Dishwasher: In terms of the student population, this is strictly a luxury item. "A lot of decisions here are driven by whether the college is urban or rural," explains Ellis. "If it's rural, the building's primary purpose will always be for students. But on urban campuses, if there's a downturn in student resident population, administrators want to convert these spaces to market rate apartments." You can always sub it underneath the counter and install the unit later, construction consultants advise.

Washers/Dryers: These appliances actually are declining in popularity, at least among the administration audiences. According to Jim Truitt, executive vice president of JPI in Irving, Texas, studies reveal a central laundry facility uses two to three times less water than individual units. "It makes sense - if it's in your unit, you might only wash half a load of clothes. If you have to walk down the hall, you'll make it worth your while," he points out. It's also a social move designed to prevent students from holing up behind their room doors, Lucas notes.

In the past, experts have steered campus residence halls toward side-by-side models when they did choose this option; lately the size of the stackables' washer tub has improved to reduce the vibration, reliability and durability of these models, Truitt reports. "We've had good success lately, which is obviously good because it saves square footage," he says.

Getting the Bill

Most vendors deal with trusted brand names ranging from GE to Whirlpool, Amana, Maytag and Frigidaire, but the multifamily housing grades simply cost less that what the average American pays to install in their kitchens. Most administrators should count on spending between $1,800 and $2,400 on all appliances, says Blais. It's a perfectly acceptable strategy all the way around.

"If there's an opportunity to upgrade something else internally - a solid wood furniture package, for instance - students would rather see that than a timer on their stove or three more cubic feet of refrigerator space," says Lucas.

Nor will this tactic cost you more in maintenance and repair fees in the short- or long-term, Blais adds. Capstone Development recommends its clients budget $36 a unit (roughly $10 per bed) for appliance repair and replacement on their above-the-line expenses, and sock some cash into escrow every school year to address large scale replacements every decade or so.

"Whether students are using these appliances isn't the question," reminds Ellis. "The perception is that they are, so reality doesn't matter."