MONEY TREE: N.Y. Colleges Encounter Obstacles in Drive to Build Dorms
Meeting student demand, bolstering their images and generating revenue are behind the move of several New York community colleges which are opening, planning or contemplating student housing.
But the colleges are finding they must clear difficult legal and political hurdles to build student housing.
College officials must overcome state regulations which prohibit community colleges from building or acquiring dorms, working through indirect mechanisms such as contracting through their foundations or non-profits for the lease or construction of dorms.
Niagara County Community College, which will cut the ribbon on a 308-room complex on Aug. 29, took nine years to move student housing from concept into reality, said Dr. Bassam Deeb, vice president for student services and interim executive vice president and dean of academic affairs. The college needed to create two non-profit corporations to make the housing a reality.
Other challenges await colleges with similar goals.
Ulster Community College, planning to open a dormitory in 2010, facing concerns over water shortages, is seeking approval to tap into a neighboring water district. Dutchess Community College is being sued by the town of Poughkeepsie to halt its development plans.
Despite the difficulties, college officials say it’s necessary to build dorms to remain competitive.
The fall 2008 semester welcomes inaugural dorm openings on both the Niagara County and Jamestown Community College campuses. Schenectady County Community College is aiming for its dorms to open in the fall of 2009. Plus, several other colleges are investigating student housing.
College officials prefer the term “student housing” to dormitories, largely for image reasons. Most schools are building facilities to house about 200 to 300 students in suite-style units at a cost $12 to $20 million.
And while not all colleges will realize significant revenue from the housing, Donald Katt, Ulster’s president, said his college’s proposal could produce “probably about $1.5 million” per year. Even with the expense of additional staffing, he’s expecting “more than $1 million will be available,” much of which would be used to increase the number of full-time faculty.
Among other benefits, said Katt, “It will expand the number of students we’re serving” and “bring in more student and state aid dollars.” It will also “diversify our campus more. We currently have about 40 to 60 students born in foreign countries. We think that number could increase.”
As at other community colleges, much of Ulster’s housing will be dedicated to special programs, such as paramedic training, nursing and environmental science.
In fact, the college’s environmental science club is participating in the planning by encouraging green design.
Katt said, “We could build with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, which means we’d have a green building philosophy and have these facilities be models for other campuses in sustainability. We plan on doing that as well.”
However, the project still faces significant obstacles if it’s to open by the fall of 2010, as Katt hopes. The most daunting? Water.
There’s “a unique geological factor here that limits water access,” Katt said. So rather than turn to the town for the right to use local reservoirs, Ulster is petitioning a neighboring water district to sell it water access for the complex.
Deeb said the obstacles for Niagara were legal complexities rather than natural resources. The end result is the Village College Suites at NCCC, where students will enjoy fully furnished, fully wired apartment-style living with private bedrooms.
Most students will pay $6,500 a year in rent, which covers heat, hot water, air conditioning, electricity, cable TV and Internet access.
“The biggest hurdle we had to overcome was to create the structure for the facility,” he said. “Any housing services you provide have to be an auxiliary, separate from the institution. You cannot use institutional resources to build the facility.”
Niagara needed to create two nonprofit corporations, “one to receive the conveyance of the land, the other to be the operator of the facility,” Deeb said.
On the other hand, “the actual sale of the bonds took 30 minutes to secure $19.1 million.”
The reason for the complicated logistics is that New York state law dictates that community colleges cannot directly fund, build or manage student housing.
A recent report by the New York State Commission on Higher Education called for the restriction to be lifted.
According to the report, “Under current law, community colleges are technically prohibited from acquiring or building dorms. Despite this prohibition, one-half of SUNY’s (State University of New York) community colleges have built or acquired dorms by utilizing indirect mechanisms, such as contracting through their foundations for the lease or construction of such facilities.
“Community colleges need dorms for at least part of their student populations. Not all students can live at home. Many community colleges attract out-of-county and out-of-state students, and there has been a recent influx of significant numbers of international students at SUNY community colleges. These colleges have evolved from commuter schools into multi-dimensional campuses serving a diverse mix of students, and the commission recommends removal of the prohibition on community college dormitory acquisition.”
It’s a proposal that’s bound to excite many administrators.
In Niagara’s case, for example, because it was required to contract out the facilities, “the college does not make any money” from the operation of the student housing, Deeb said.
Instead, when the project eventually makes a profit, which could take a few years, it’s up to the Student Housing Village Corp. — the nonprofit agency that’s building and managing the housing — to decide what to do with the funds. In addition to his college titles, Deeb is executive director of the corporation.
He said it’s difficult to speculate on the eventual distribution of the funds, although some of the profits could be used for scholarships or donated to the college. In addition, “the college serves as the billing agent, and the college will be paid for that service,” Deeb said.
“We did not do it for money,” Deeb added. “We had two major objectives. One had to do with trying to change the image of the institution from being ‘the years after high school’ and create the perception that it is a higher education institution. Community colleges struggle with that.”
The other objective was “trying to respond to what was a constant demand on making services available that are competitive with other institutions of higher education around us. We felt we would work both to keep our foothold in the marketplace” and “to make us attractive to people outside our area because we’re in an area where population is declining.”
And perhaps it’s such enthusiasm over the anticipated benefits of on-campus housing that sometimes leads colleges into trouble when their plans don’t match those of their local municipalities.
For example, the Town of Poughkeepsie sued Dutchess County and its community college to oversee and possibly halt the college’s housing plans.
That move came after the county legislature in March approved a measure supporting an agreement to lease county-owned land for the proposed housing project.
Technically at issue is whether the legislature should have conducted an environmental review, although there are a host of underlying concerns.
Patricia Myers, the town supervisor, said, “Definitely we believe the town is entitled to oversight. I don’t think they’ve taken into account the impact on the neighborhood.” That includes such considerations as fire district funding, traffic, sewers, wetlands and philosophical disagreements.
“There’s a lot of issues involves,” Myers emphasized. “We think Dutchess Community College is a wonderful institute. It provides affordable education for many of our youth, but we see no reason for it to have dormitories.”
A judge is set to rule on the case soon.
Regardless of the result in court, don’t expect either side to give up the fight.
Even if the town loses the suit, Myers said, “we’ll continue to argue with the legislature.”