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Higher ed housing: As students grow, so too do their living options

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Pursuing an education after high school comes with myriad decisions. In addition to deciding where to go, applying and being accepted, there’s the issue of of choosing a major, signing up for classes, moving into a dormitory on campus, and meeting the person you’ll be living with for the next nine months. For many new students, it’s the first time living away from home. For others, it’s the first time they’ll be sharing room with another person.

At the Chippewa Valley’s two universities, the campus housing options for first-year students are simple and pretty Spartan. Freshmen are housed in traditional residence halls that feature, for the most part, double rooms furnished with two beds, two desks, perhaps a bookcase and chairs. Most provide kitchen facilities that double as social spaces on at least one floor, often on the first floor or basement.

There are clear advantages to living in the dorms in the form of the student services that are provided, points out Quincy Chapman, director of Housing and Residence Life at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. They include the guiding presence of resident assistants and hall directors. With furnished rooms, students can move in and out with a minimum of fuss. Maintenance, custodial and housekeeping services are provided.

“Another big advantage students seem to like is the one bill a semester where everything is taken care of,” Chapman said, adding that unlike living off-campus, “They don’t have to call Charter to deal with the Internet, pay an Xcel bill or a water bill — it’s all managed by the university.”

Split campus

At UW-Stout in Menomonie, campus residents are divided into one of two core communities — First-Year Experience for freshmen or The Next Experience for sophomores and beyond. Some of its nine dorms — four located on Stout’s North Campus, and five amid the academic buildings on South Campus — are designated either as strictly FYE or TNE, while others are a combination.

“South Campus where all of our first year students live; we all want to make sure they have a comparable experience,” said Kathleen Baker, director of Stout’s University Housing. “There’s a lot of research out there that having a roommate and living in a traditionally designed community with shared bathrooms is a great experience — and the best experience for a first-year student. It allows them to make friends and be in a community and interact.”

Unless they elect to live locally with their families, first- and second-year students at Stout are required to live in the dormitories. Four of the five residence halls on South Campus are strictly for FYEs, while Antrim-Froggatt-McCalmont is both an FYE and TNE hall that offers multiple living options.

Similar concerns

According to its website, its 14 residence halls are “consistently a popular choice for nearly 4,000 students at UW-Eau Claire.” Like Stout, the UW-EC campus is split between the upper campus off Clairemont Avenue and the lower campus near downtown Eau Claire. Most of its undergraduates live in mostly circa-1960s dormitories on the upper campus.

“Most campuses, especially in Wisconsin, like to have enough housing so that both first-year and second-year students can live on campus if they want,” Chapman said. There’s a shortage of inventory, however, that will continue until a new building currently under construction next to Towers Hall on the upper campus is completed in 2019. When open, another 432 beds will be added.

Unlike most of the existing residence halls, Chapman says, “That one’s kind of a hybrid — it’s more private in amenities than a traditional dormitory, but it’s not an apartment. It’s basically suites. Four students live together. They share a split function bathroom inside their unit — there’s a toilet room, a separate shower room, and a sink out in the open, so all four of them can be getting ready at the same time.”

While the new facility will ease the burden, UW-EC’s aging dormitories are also in need of serious refreshing. “The big impetus by getting the new building built is so that we take other buildings offline one at a time to renovate them,” he said. “As soon as we get that one up, then one of our traditional residence halls will come offline.”

Upper class accommodations

As students at UW-EC and UW-Stout rise through the academic ranks, improved housing options have resulted in more juniors and seniors continuing to live on campus rather than seeking a student rental house or apartment in surrounding neighborhoods.

Most of the residence halls at UW-EC — as is the case at Stout — are owned by each university. UW-Eau Claire, however, has answered the need to ease its student housing crunch in a creative way. University-sponsored housing units are owned by private parties but run by the school.

“We either lease them or enter into service agreements with them, but we take over the whole building,” Chapman said. “For example, Haymarket Landing, Aspenson-Mogensen, and the Priory are privately owned, but we operate them.”

Located on Water Street across the river from lower campus, the new Aspenson-Mogensen Hall was opened to students for the 2017-18 school year. The co-ed apartment-style facility that houses more than 200 students in either single or multiple bedroom suites above ground level retail space.

Next to the newly-opened Pablo Center at the Confluence, Haymarket Landing is a mixed-use downtown building that includes a five stories of fully furnished apartments above ground level retail and commercial space and has housed about 375 UW-EC students when it opened in 2016.

For about 50 students who appreciate a more quiet and pastoral setting, Priory Hall is located about three miles south of UW-EC’s main campus in what was the former St. Bede’s Monastery amid 112 wooded acres. The property was purchased in 2011 by subsidiary of the UW-Eau Claire Foundation and turned into a residence hall with single rooms for upperclassmen.

“Guaranteed singles are hard to come by on campus because we’ve had such a housing shortage for so many years,” Chapman said.

First-year students seem to embrace the atmosphere to be found in the traditional dormitories and the opportunity to make social connections. “As they get older, they tend to like to have increased levels of privacy,” Chapman said, adding, “A little more independence, but they like the ability to have staff nearby when they need them to provide support.”

The private-public partnership has also provided a significant number of living units. Between Aspenson-Mogensen and Haymarket Landing, UW-EC can offer housing to nearly 600 more students, Chapman said. “It used to be that we had so few buildings to operate that we had to use hotels for overflow housing and things like that. They’ve given students a different choice, but they’ve also expanded the number of students we can serve, which has been really nice.”

He pointed out that the biggest trend is the quality of the amenities, Chapman said: “The way universities have had to move with housing is to be more competitive in terms of how nice it is with the amenities that are offered. And these are pretty nice.”

That observation is borne out at UW-Stout.

Making a new transition

All four residence halls on Stout’s North Campus are offered only to upperclassmen, with Red Cedar Hall as the newest and most popular. Opened in 2005 and only available to juniors and above, Red Cedar is a suite-style building that features three to four bedrooms, a kitchenette, shared shower and toilet rooms separated by a sink, and central living area. Each of its five floors has a full kitchen, lounge and laundry room.

“Students really like them because they can select a suite with their friends,” Baker said. “It’s more of a grown-up, post-graduate kind of living experience that offers them more independence and it’s a nice transition to the ‘real world.’ With the convenience of being right there on or close to campus, it gives them a little more of an adult experience and privacy that a lot of students are desiring.”

It also doesn’t hurt that there’s bus pick-up to South Campus, a half mile or longer trot through downtown Menomonie. And North Point Fitness and Dining Center is right across the street and adjacent to Fleming, Wigen and Hovlid Halls.

Across Broadway and overlooking Lake Menomin is Jeter Tainter Callahan, a TNE hall that offers co-ed-by-room options. Empty for several years, the building was at one time slated for demolition according to a long-range campus concept plan that has since been revised. That idea, however, was scrapped when it was decided that despite its age — like many Stout residence halls, it was built in the 1960s — the structure was actually in good shape.

Reopened in September, JTC received what Baker calls a mini-renovation: “It had been shut down for several years, so there was a lot of kind of behind-the-wall stuff, plus replacing of carpet, lots of paint, changes to get the wireless internet system upgraded so students would have the same functions as anybody else on campus, some work on bathrooms, finishes — a lot of things to make is a good, functional space.”

Baker said JTC will serve to provide student residence space when South Hall undergoes the same kind of full-scale renovation currently underway at North Hall, begun last May and set to be completed by fall 2019. Gutted to the walls, Baker said, “They’re getting completely new bathrooms — completely new everything. And when it’s done, it’s going to have all new furniture. It’s basically going to be a brand new building with the same shell.”

Student perspectives

Senior Ryan Curtis has either lived or worked in nearly every residence hall during his years at UW-Stout except Red Cedar Hall, which he admits is the most coveted. “It fills up the fastest and it can be hard to get a spot in, let alone a full suite with three of your friends,” he said.

As for what students expect from on-campus housing, he said that being able to rearrange the furniture is a big plus: “With North being renovated, just a few of the UW-Stout dorms still have desks and book shelves bolted to the walls. I’ve also talked to students who were happy that they didn’t have to bring any furniture like some other universities require. Everything is provided at Stout.

“For off-campus housing, it tends to be affordability and distance from campus,” Curtis added. “I have a few friends who live more than a 30-minute walk from campus — and they are not fond of it.”

Jace Dempski, a fifth year senior at Stout, can attest to the issues presented by living in student rental. He lived in the main campus residence halls from 2014 through 2017. Although he found some of the shower heads set a little low and would have appreciated having full kitchen facilities on each floor, “I would say they are about as good as could be expected from a dorm room.”

Dempski has shared a student rental with four roommates since the spring semester. He appreciates its affordability, the privacy of his own bedroom and being able to cook — even if only two burners on the stove work and only the bedrooms are insulated and heated. He finds making the trek to campus can be challenging, especially in the winter. Driving is an option, but it requires a ready supply of change for a parking meter.

“I would say that while the building itself is a bit worn down, it is far more comfortable,” Dempski said. “It requires a greater amount of responsibility to maintain, but along with that comes greater privacy, freedom, and decent food.”

Although he’s from nearby Altoona, UW-Eau Claire senior Kyle Grokowsky chose to live in the dorms. He appreciated making new friends when he lived in Murray Hall on the upper campus, but noted that the 1960s-era building itself was in poor condition and badly in need renovation. In his sophomore year, he moved to Governors Hall which was something of an improvement since he thought had been updated in recent years.

As a junior, Grokowsky decided he wanted his own room and moved off campus to a student rental on Grand Avenue. “I wanted to be in campus life, but not engulfed campus life.”

Nearly three miles away, the walk to classes usually took about 30 minutes, although he said his record was about 17 minutes. Now a senior, the distance is moot since he’s moved back to his family’s home to save money before he graduates in 2019.

Nicholas Salvati transferred to UW-Stout last year to major in graphic communication. Although a sophomore, he was technically a first year student and lived in a male transfer community in South Hall on the main campus.

“In the transfer community, we had multiple different age ranges,” Salvati said. “It seemed for a lot of the transfer students, it was hard to connect to the rest of the freshmen in the building.”

He found that working the front desk in the dorm helped him get to know some of his fellow residents. “I knew that I wanted to get even more involved after last year because I had such a eye-opening experience,” Salvati said.

This year he’s an RA at Antrim Hall, in charge of the male transfer floor on campus. “So far I am really enjoying being a RA and also being able to lead a group of guys who are trying to integrate into a new college environment.”

Occupancy, rental rates

Chapman says that other than students who commute locally, about 93 percent of UW-Eau Claire’s first-year students live in the residence halls, which adds up to about 4,000 of the 10,500 students enrolled.

“We expect most of them, by the time they’re juniors, wouldn’t move home, they’d stay in off-campus housing in the nearby neighborhoods,” Chapman said.

The per-person cost for a double room from September to May ranges from $4,700 to a high of $5,200 for a renovated room at Towers Hall. The rate for the new residence hall slated to open in fall 2019 is $5,600 for a single room and $5,400 for a double. A Chancellors Hall apartment goes for $6,300 while the cost of a single room at The Priory is $5,500.

The university-sponsored housing options off campus depend on the length of the lease and the number of bedrooms. At Haymarket Landing, a nine-month lease ranges from $7,000 to $8,400, while a 12-month lease comes in at a cost of $6,700 to $9,000. Only 12-month leases are available at Aspenson-Mogensen and run between $9,300 to $9,400.

Baker reports that the residence halls at UW-Stout have generally been full for the last five years.

“We tend to house around 3,000 to 3,100 students on campus,” she said. “We probably have 100 to 130 students who are approved to be exempt from the live on requirement to commute.”

With a total enrollment of approximately 7,000 undergraduate students, that means Stout houses about 43 percent of its undergrads, while about 57 percent live off campus, either at home with family or in apartments or rented houses.

The rate students can expect to pay for housing at Stout ranges between $1,940 for a triple room to $2,740 for a single, with the person rate for a Red Cedar Hall suite goes for $2,840.

“We want to create spaces that our students want to stay on campus and be part of the campus rather than taking their chances off campus,” Baker said. “I think they look at the inexpensive rent they get, but they don’t calculate in all the other things that they get on campus — internet, electricity, garbage — all those things that they don’t think about when they sign a lease off campus. And I think some of them are shocked.”

With JTC still open and North reopening next year, the university will be able to expand the number of spaces it can offer students. “We’re in negotiations right now to create different types of room styles and communities for students who don’t traditionally live on campus, like graduate students.”

If enrollment at UW-Stout grows, Baker predicts available student housing would be stretched pretty thin.

“I think we’re settling into our comfort zone as far as housing goes. There’s going to be fluctuations in enrollment, but next year, once we have North open again, I think we have the right amount of space.”

Chapman is optimistic about the direction student housing at UW-Eau Claire is going, especially with the addition of the new options at Haymarket Landing and Aspenson-Mogensen: “It’s just an exciting time for us to see significant progress in the quality and quantity of student housing. Chancellors Hall was the last building that the university renovated or built and that was in 2000. ... The turnover in terms of buildings we’ve been able to renovate and put into the inventory leads me to think students’ experiences ... and quality of life has significantly improved.”

“The way universities have had to move with housing is to be more competitive in terms of how nice it is with the amenities that are offered. And these are pretty nice.” Quincy Chapman, UW-Eau Claire Director of Housing and Residence Life, on new living options for students in downtown Eau Claire

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Dunn County News editor

Barbara Lyon is the editor of The Dunn County News in Menomonie, WI.

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