THERE was a time when the university dorm was the great equalizer. It didn't matter if you were on a scholarship or a trust fund. You still had to put up with communal bathrooms, florescent light, windows that didn't open, cinder-block construction.
Things have changed. To start, don't call them dorms. Now they're residence halls, and the archetypal cramped room has morphed into a suite, bringing with it once-unimaginable amenities. If parents don't understand why it's taking so long to finish that liberal arts degree, invite them over for dinner in your kitchen, complete with full-sized refrigerator, dishwasher and granite counter top. They won't want to leave either.
Need a break from that mind-numbing statistics reading? Take a dip in the junior Olympic-sized pool or hop onto the treadmill in the 24-hour gym, followed by a session in the tanning salon. Not your style? Plop on a Herman Miller chair and watch "Entourage" on the 72-inch plasma TV in the lounge.
That is, if you haven't brought your own. Even when the buildings aren't anything special, students are making them so, hauling in their own comforts and conveniences. "The newest trend is the bigger-screen TV, the plasma -- I've seen some big ones, 40- and 50-inchers," says Dana R. Pysz, who as resident director of Rieber Hall at UCLA will oversee the move-in of 1,068 students this fall. Last year he saw a lot of Nintendo Wii video game systems come through the doors. One former UCLA student, he says, tried (and failed) to move his water bed into a residence hall.
Back-to-school shoppers will spend $5.4 billion this year, a figure that has nearly doubled since 2003, according to the National Retail Federation. On average, about $1,500 of that will come from each freshman gearing up for life in a residence hall that is nicer than most parents ever imagined.
Workers have been putting the finishing touches on a new dorm scheduled to open this week at USC. The Arts and Humanities Residential College is modest by emerging standards, but students will still find a mini-microwave and refrigerator in every room, a private bathroom for every two units and $11,000 Poul Henningsen artichoke lamps hanging in the lounge.
THE trend toward the four-star dorm is a convergence of several factors: a generation of students who have grown up sharing neither the bedroom nor the bathroom with siblings, parents who are accustomed to high tuition costs and don't object to paying a few hundred more per month for better accommodations, and universities competing for enrollment and using posh new residence halls as marketing tools.
"We've upscaled these facilities with amenities that nobody could have ever dreamed of," says Norbert Dunkel, president of the Assn. of College and University Housing Officers International.
Another factor: the emergence of for-profit real estate developers and property management companies that specialize in higher education housing. Though operated independently, many of these projects are officially affiliated with universities, operate on or next to campuses and allow only students to move in.
In Chicago, the Scion Group led the building of the Loft-Right building, adjacent to DePaul University. The 160-unit facility premiered last summer boasting a private bathroom for every one to three residents, 10-foot-plus ceilings, granite tabletops, satellite TV and Eames and Herman Miller furniture throughout the steel and glass building.
At ON50, a new off-campus complex at the University of South Florida, Scion has spent $3.5 million to redesign an 8-year-old, 165-unit complex. The company brought in South Beach-style Art Deco sconces, 42-inch high-definition flat screens in every unit and Philippe Starck deck chairs by the pool.
"This is the reality," says Robert Bronstein, president of the Scion Group. "Today's students are living like young adults, and they're more attuned to brands and styles and designs than their counterparts were 10 to 15 years ago."
The complexes try to be a cross between a residence hall and an apartment. Students, Bronstein says, "want to feel like they're grown up and living in their first place, and we're giving them something that has that feel but it has a lot of the attributes of a residence hall."
That means a doorman, not a security guard. And no late-night pizzas ending up on the wall in a blitz of "Animal House"-style high jinks.
"Our experience is the higher the quality of the facility and the better it's maintained, the better people will treat it," says Bronstein. "The eight guys from a frat who want to live together in a house and destroy it aren't going to be living in our building from the get-go."
That assessment is echoed by Bill Bayless, chief executive of American Campus Communities in Austin, Texas. The firm is one of the largest for-profit student housing operations, with 35,000 beds in its portfolio and a 95% occupancy rate.