Digital Living on Campus

Combining the social and academic aspects of higher education, strong on-campus housing enhances the college experience for students. However, the number of students living off campus increases each year. (In 2002, 56 percent of students lived off campus). Undoubtedly, the appeal of off-campus housing can be persuasive — forcing students to weigh the pros and cons of the different environments. Making the decision even more difficult, in recent years private developers have taken the lead in creating student-centric apartments. For on-campus housing to remain students’ top choice, administrators need to ensure that on-campus housing options align with the way today’s students live. One way to accomplish this is to offer technology-based amenities.

Define and Incorporate the Digital Lifestyle

As administrators know, college students lead a lifestyle different than most of society. Known for their sense of individuality, ability to multi-task, and expectation of immediacy, today’s college students are always connected… and always moving. Known as “Generation Next,” these students grew up surrounded by technology. In fact, 20 percent began using a computer between the ages of five and eight.

A 2006 study conducted by the University of South Carolina found that 99 percent of students living on campus had a computer in their residence hall. In addition, a Student Monitoring study reported that 90 percent of students have cell phones, 73 percent own televisions, and 76 percent own DVD players. Other studies have found that at least 25 percent own some kind of gaming console, while around a third have a digital music player. That being said, this is obviously a tech-savvy group.

Understanding that students are early adopters of the digital lifestyle is only the first step. That knowledge must translate into changes in student housing design. For example, we know that virtually every residence hall room will include at least one television. Today’s flat-panel, wall-mounted TVs are vastly different — particularly in size and shape — than previous versions. As such, some campus housing developers are starting to include flat-screen wall-blocking units, which enable safe mounting, while hiding wires and requiring less space than traditional television stands.

Keep in mind that a residence hall doesn’t need to be — and more realistically, can never truly be — “future-proofed,” but some forward-thinking and planning can ensure that the infrastructure will remain viable even as new technologies and services are introduced.

Create Stable In-Unit Networks

Needless to say, tech-savvy students expect tech-savvy housing, which begins with a robust in-unit network. By now, campus IT departments are more than adept at creating networks in residence halls and throughout campus. However, when it comes to student housing, it’s critical to remember that students are relying on the network more than ever. By providing a strong network — with sufficient bandwidth and plenty of outlets — developers will meet residents’ needs in two ways. First, students will be able to access the Internet where they want to use it — particularly in bedrooms and common areas. Second, the functionality of networked devices will be maximized. It used to be that a printer was the only piece of equipment that needed to connect with a network. Now, students want to connect DVRs, media servers, mobile devices, and videogame players. As such, networks need to be designed so students can “plug and play” — meaning that when a device is plugged in, it automatically can be found and approved for access to the network.

Accommodate Shifting Communication Modes

Gone are the days when traditional landlines would run into every bedroom and every common area in student housing. Today, more than 90 percent of students arrive at college with cell phones in hand — virtually eliminating the need for landlines. In fact, New York’s Syracuse University has changed their approach completely; students wanting landlines now must pay for installation, and then pay a subscription fee. Another approach — particularly applicable in suite-style housing — is to offer one landline located in the common area to serve the suite’s residents.

This shift to cell phones has also created the expectation that cellular service is available virtually everywhere… especially “at home” on campus. “Dead zones” are unacceptable. As such, forward-thinking developers are installing cell phone amplifiers. These systems should be designed to “boost” all of the major wireless carriers. The result of a properly designed amplifier system? Strong community-wide signal strength… just what students expect.

Listen to Students 

It’s no secret: The iPod has helped spark a resurgence in music popularity among teens and college students. In fact, it’s almost impossible to walk on a college campus without running into students with those patented white earbuds in their ears. So, how can on-campus housing administrators tap into the enormous popularity of portable music players? Besides iTunes U, consider installing MP3 docking stations in units and common areas. This technological amenity — which enables multi-room distribution of music and video — is sure to “wow” students and create a buzz about the benefits of living on campus.

Without question, loud music is a challenge in student housing. Using fixed speakers in the units and common areas can minimize some noise disturbances. Private developers are pre-installing surround sound systems to avoid angering neighbors. By controlling speaker placement, the loudest speakers are kept away from shared walls.

Reinventing the Computer Lab

According to recent estimates, at least 85 percent of students arrive at college with a personal computer. As a result, providing a traditional computer lab — featuring rows of desktop computers — is often unnecessary. Instead, in a 2007 study conducted by the National Multi-Housing Council (NMHC), students said they would prefer “productivity centers.” Similar to a business center, these rooms give students access to printing, binding, scanning, and related services that can be offered for free, or as revenue generators. Other options can include basic audio and video production tools that enable residents to produce podcasts and participate in videoconferences.

Combat the Lure of Off-Campus Housing

Freshmen have a decidedly different perspective on college than their upperclassmen counterparts. Not surprisingly, this vantage point shapes their student housing “wish list.”  According to that same study by the NMHC, college freshmen are more concerned with aspects related to community life. Meanwhile, upperclassmen focus more on practical issues (e.g., cost, utilities, maintenance), as well as sports-related amenities.

Two attractive amenities found in off-campus housing that are not included in most on-campus housing options are kitchens and clubhouses. In fact, the NMHC study found that students who lived off-campus cited the kitchen as the most important room in their apartments. After the kitchen, students cited the bedroom, bathroom, and living room (in that order) as the next most important spaces.

Two important points to note: Don’t underestimate the number of gadgets that need to be plugged into college housing facilities. Second, students expect the freedom to customize their unit by rearranging furniture. That being said, developers must make a conscious effort to provide enough power and communications outlets — in the appropriate places — to accommodate students’ tech toys. If off-campus housing offers ample hook-ups, on-campus must as well. Consider including multiple video and Internet jacks in the main common area/living room and at least one in each bedroom (for suite-style apartments).

Another presumed advantage of living off-campus is access to a clubhouse. Today’s next-generation clubhouses are not the traditional lounge-style room. Instead, the design focuses on flexibility, giving students the ability to do what they want, where they want. Clubhouses have evolved into multipurpose spaces for entertainment and group activities.

Off-campus student housing is a competitive business, so developers are incorporating high-end products to attract students. For example, clubhouses may feature iPod-docking stations, so students can listen to their own music while spending time with friends. The latest trend in clubhouse design includes gaming rooms. With the increased popularity of the Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360, students want space to play with their friends online. On-campus housing developers need to consider providing space in common areas for these entertaining activities — or risk losing residents to private developers off campus.

Digital Lifestyle Shapes Student Housing

Today’s competitive student housing market forces developers, and therefore housing officers, to provide an amenity-rich experience as a strategy to recruit and retain students. Part of this strategy needs to focus on technology-based conveniences — in individual units and throughout common areas. We know that students adopt technology at a faster rate than almost any other demographic. As the digital lifestyle continues to evolve — increasing students’ expectations — student housing needs to be equipped to meet their ever-changing needs and demands.

Mike Whaling is the vice president of Business Development manager for InfiniSys Electronic Architects (, an engineering and design firm that provides technology-based amenity solutions to multifamily developers. Mike is the creator and administrator of the Multifamily Technology 360° blog ( He can be reached at 386/236-1530 or [email protected].