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2013 February 18 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Living Large

Florida Keys Community College opened Lagoon Landing 2011

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Living Large
Growing List of Colleges Opening Residence Halls
By Paul Bradley

The rhythms of life on a typical community college are familiar to those who populate campuses large and small.

Lights flicker on before dawn as the first cars roll in and begin to fill parking lots. Students, faculty and staff arrive in a trickle and then a torrent, crossing the campus on their way to classrooms, laboratories and lecture halls.

By early evening, the early-comers have headed home, replaced by a cadre of older students taking night classes after work. By 11 p.m., the pace has slowed almost to a crawl. Lights are flipped off, doors locked, another day awaited.

But the pulse of community college life is undergoing significant change as more campuses build and open residence halls, transforming commuter colleges into 24-7 operations, with students living on campus.

Most community colleges don’t offer on-campus housing for students. Established as an open-access, low-cost alternative to traditional four-year colleges, community colleges typically enroll students who commute from their homes. About 80 community colleges across the country offer residence halls, a fraction of the 1,200 campuses around the country.

The list is beginning to grow, however, as community colleges cement their place as a viable alternative for students searching for an affordable education, and are put off by the skyrocketing cost of four-year colleges. The colleges themselves are increasingly recruiting student athletes and students from outside their service areas who are more likely to need or want
on-campus housing.

College officials, fighting for a declining pool of high school graduates, are bowing to the reality that in a competitive higher educational environment, open access and high-quality academics are no longer enough.

The trend is particularly apparent in New York, where half of the state’s community colleges feature residence halls. Several other State University of New York community colleges are considering dorms as competition for a limited number of students intensifies.

Last fall, Dutchess Community College opened Conklin Hall, a $33 million, 465-bed, four-story dormitory on its campus in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. There, students are housed in suite-style units averaging 1,100 square-feet with two or three bedrooms; two bathrooms; a kitchenette with full-sized refrigerator; a multi-purpose atrium; lounges on each floor; cable television and wireless internet access.

Conklin Hall is named after longtime college President D. David Conklin. He said the dorm has changed campus life for the better, injecting a new energy among both resident students and commuters. The college has an enrollment of about 10,000 students. More than 70 percent of them plan to transfer to a four-year college.

“There is much more activity in the evening,” Conklin he said. “There are more students using student services than ever before. There is more interest in clubs and activities. It really has energized the entire campus.”

Six years in the planning, Conklin Hall was built after extensive marketing studies. They looked at factors such as the area’s housing options, rents, vacancy rates and student preferences. Studies found that many students who wanted a full college experience — including living on campus — were not considering community colleges.

The dorms allow colleges to boost enrollment and increase revenue in an era of shrinking public support. They can help attract students who are committed to obtaining a degree. The colleges will remain mostly commuter schools, with a residential component.

But dorms can also further a college’s academic mission. Students in specialty programs like allied health, or student-athletes, can live in a community of like-minded compatriots.

Colleges with dorms can also house students from afar who want to enroll in specialized programs, like the aquatic and marine programs offered at Florida Keys Community College.

In 2011, FKCC opened Lagoon Landing, a 100-bed waterfront residence hall located adjacent to the college’s dive training lagoon on the college’s Key West Campus. It features suite-style living arrangements with fully-furnished four- and five-bedroom, two-bathroom units.Common living areas are furnishedwith sofa, club chair and end tables, and a kitchenette with a refrigerator, stove-top, and microwave.

Free Wi-Fiis provided and cable connectionsare available in each suite. Building entrancesare monitored by security cameras andare accessible only to residents and authorized college officials. An emergency telephone is also in each suite.

College President Jonathan Gueverra said the dorm makes sense for FKCC for several reasons, chief among them the college’s large service area. It extends 100 miles up U.S. 1 to Key Largo, the distance making the commute for recent high school graduates a near impossibility.

Gueverra also believes students can benefit academically from living on campus. Lagoon Landing is located steps from classrooms, instructors, advisors and resources like the library and tutoring center.

“From a general perspective, I think that community colleges should have residence halls,” he said. “If you look at the top liberal arts colleges, they all have their students 24-7. There are so many things that you can do to get them to that place where you want them to go, which is graduation. The dorm is part of academic life.”

For administrators planning dorms, the process can be fraught with peril. No detail is too small. Designers must integrate the dorm into the existing campus and separate pedestrians from vehicles. Planners must account for the security and well-being of resident students. Costs must be capped at a level so that community college students can afford to live in a dorm. The dorms must be financed, usually with long-term tax-exempt bonds which are repaid with student housing fees.

Robert Harrison, president of Lake Michigan College, is embarking on the process. Last month, the college’s Board of Trustees gave Harrison the go-ahead to create a non-profit corporation to finance a 200-bed dorm that would open in fall 2014.

“This is just another piece of how we are working to transform the region,” Harrison said. “The foundation for advancing our region is through education. It’s imperative that the college do all it can to be a center for education and a place for discovery for people of all ages. Student housing represents a logical of our commitment to offering a premiere educational experience.”

It’s Your Turn:  CCW wants  to hear from you!
Q:  Do on-campus residence halls make sense for community colleges?

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