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Demand rises to live on campus

Soaring rents in college neighborhoods and growing enrollments drive a building boom in university housing.

February 13, 2007|Larry Gordon | Times Staff Writer

When Jason Robinson transferred to UCLA in the fall as a third-year student, he considered living in a Westwood-area apartment. But then he was offered a spot in a new campus residence hall and joined a trend in Southern California and around the nation.

More students want to live on campus these days, and more schools want them to. The result is a building boom.

"I couldn't be happier," Robinson, a communications major from Palm Desert, said in the on-campus room he shares with two others. "I wanted to get the experience of getting more involved on campus and meeting more new people."

Various social and educational reasons are driving the movement, especially pricey real estate off campus. Some students want to avoid commutes. Administrators say that residential students tend to do better in school and that hovering parents think dorms provide more supervision. Newer residence halls -- some colleges avoid the word "dorms" -- also offer amenities many students are accustomed to at home.

Robinson lives in Rieber Terrace, an L-shaped, nine-story structure with a glass, brick and metal exterior that looks more like a hotel than a dorm housing about 740 students. Some of the chicly designed lounges offer panoramic views, and the progress of your wash in the laundry facility can be tracked on the Internet.

The building's opening in the fall and that of other projects that added 1,300 beds over the last two years pushed the percentage of UCLA students in university housing to 36% overall, significantly higher than in the recent past. The school recently began to guarantee freshmen three years of housing, instead of two.

UCLA's goal is "to make it more of a residential campus. We are working toward that," said Michael Foraker, UCLA's assistant vice chancellor for housing and hospitality services.

UCLA is not alone. USC, UC Irvine, Loyola Marymount University and the Colburn School Conservatory of Music in downtown Los Angeles are among the local schools that recently have opened residence halls, are building them or have them on the drawing boards. Even mainly commuter Cal State universities, such as those in Long Beach and Northridge, expect to join the boom.

The demand has always been there, leading some schools in the past to hold lotteries for scarce dorm space.

Growing enrollments partly fuel the on-campus housing trend at some schools. Demand also comes from the tighter off-campus market in Southern California and the reality that rents in some formerly student-oriented areas, particularly on Los Angeles' Westside and in beach towns, are out of reach for many of today's students.

Living on campus can be less expensive, but not always. For example, UCLA's costs range from $8,899 an academic year to live in a triple room with a somewhat limited meal plan to $14,324 for a private room with more elaborate dining options.

Students say housing can be secured more cheaply off campus if you are willing to rough it, eat more tuna sandwiches and not have Internet connections included in dorm fees.

But convenience can trump costs when traffic and parking problems interfere with campus social life and library hours.

USC, which says the vacancy rate in university-owned housing is near zero, expects to open a 440-bed residence hall in the fall. The new building will allow USC to stop housing freshmen at the nearby Radisson Hotel, where about 190 live now. Private construction of student housing near campus is rising too.

Loyola Marymount has added more than 500 beds, an 18% increase, over the last five years. About 58% of undergraduates now live at the Westchester campus.

"I think the demand has always been there. Most students want the residential experience for the time when they go to college," said Michael J. LaConte, Loyola Marymount's director of resident services.

Genesee McCarthy, 21, an environmental science major who has spent four years in Loyola Marymount residence halls, shares a two-bedroom unit with three women.

"It's nice for me to come back in between, do some homework, snack or nap," said McCarthy, whose classes and activities can stretch from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. "If I lived off campus, it would be hard to drive home. It would be hard to be involved in events on campus and a hassle to come on and off campus."

Family pressures are a factor, too. Campus housing officers around the country say that baby boomers, if rebellious in their own youth, often hover over their college-age children. These "helicopter parents" insist that collegians live in secure dormitories with regulations and educational programs.

Parents "see a good living environment as important, as a major component of that happiness or success factor," said Connie Carson, president of the Assn. of College and University Housing Officers-International.

And schools, she said, cater to that desire with upscale residence halls in which gang shower rooms are out and semi-private bathrooms with double sinks are in.

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