Student Housing Master Plans: Where, When and Why Your Campus Needs One

Student housing has evolved significantly in the last generation, and campuses are more aware than ever of the growing discrepancy between contemporary new facilities and their older, more traditional stock.  As they examine the challenge of facility updates, many housing administrators are daunted by construction expense, schedule, and disruption in bed count.  And while they know, inherently, that more capacity is needed, the point may be difficult to argue to university administrators.  What kind of housing do we need?  Is our current model the right mix?  Would upper-division students really return to campus if we had the capacity? How could we handle bed loss if we must take a hall offline for renovations?

At KSQ, our team has helped many campuses answer these questions with a Housing Master Plan.  Many universities use campus master planning to strategize growth, but these broad-scope documents don’t always include plans specific to housing development.  Fewer still include the steps needed to schedule, phase, and fund housing construction or renovation.

What Is A Housing Master Plan?

A Housing Master Plan is a long-range planning document – typically covering a 10- to 15-year period – that provides a roadmap for programmatic and physical changes to enhance housing, as well as residential and campus life. It typically includes the following kinds of information to guide the University in reinvesting in its housing system over the plan period:

  • Target populations to house, and preferred types of housing (unit types, mix and number) to accommodate those populations.
  • Assessment of existing physical conditions and recommendations for renovations to address deferred maintenance / capital renewal and, as necessary, to modernize and upgrade buildings to make them suitable for the next decade and beyond.
  • Recommendations for new housing to address any current or anticipated deficiencies in inventory.
  • Recommendations for other enhancements to campus housing, and to residential life programming to create a more vibrant and engaging on-campus experience.
  • Financial requirements to implement changes called out in the Housing Master Plan.

A housing planner can also examine the off-campus market to determine availability and pricing of current options and compare those findings with on-campus housing options for best compatibility and most fair and effective pricing.

Why Does My Campus Need One?

If your campus experiences a significant change in enrollment, on-campus residents, housing inventory, or administrative philosophy, it might be time for a housing master plan:

  • Is there a change in enrollment? A larger student body might require more housing.  A drop in enrollment might be influenced by a housing inventory that isn’t competing with peer institutions.
  • Is there a wide range of housing conditions? The contrast between new facilities and older ones might create the perception of “haves” and “have-nots” on campus.  A housing master plan can create a strategy for renovations that provide a rich university experience across a range of student budgets.
  • Are residents satisfied with their housing experience? A housing master plan can reveal a program’s strengths and weaknesses, and provide guidance for improving the overall program.  Further, it can introduce trends in residential life that attract and retain the current generation of students.
  • Is there a change in philosophy from campus leadership? If administrators want to achieve tier-one status within the state, or create a residential campus, a housing master plan can identify best strategies to achieve new residential goals.

How is the Plan Developed?

Developing a successful Housing Master Plan usually involves a multi-step process:

  • Market Research – the team conducts interviews, focus groups, and surveys to gather comprehensive data on current housing conditions. This information is concrete, gathering students’ ages, years in college, academic majors, etc.  It is also abstract, examining what students like and don’t like about their current housing arrangements.  The planning team compares these findings with similar information gathered from peer institutions, as well as the local off-campus housing market.
  • Facilities Assessment – the team reviews existing residence halls and dining facilities to inform recommendations for upgrades. These recommendations range from programmatic needs for social and study spaces, to structural and code-required upgrades necessary for occupancy.
  • Development of a Housing Program – the final document includes an overall goal for the amount, types, and locations of housing needed on campus, in comparison to the current inventory.
  • Financial Modeling – the team examines existing revenue and expense information, along with construction cost estimates, to create different budgeting scenarios for future construction and renovation projects.

A recent exercise at the University of North Texas revealed a vibrant and loyal residential community.  It also uncovered many opportunities to improve student experience through facility upgrades.  And although the campus administrators understood the team’s recommendations, they were concerned with losing capacity during significant renovation projects.  Moreover, administrators were unsure of the best way to fund construction, balancing resources on hand with assuming too much debt.

The planning team developed two interactive documents that proved valuable to campus users.  The first was a phasing schedule, listing bed counts for each hall, before and after construction and recommended renovations.  With this tool, end users can explore different phasing options to determine a logical order for projects.  Bringing a new hall online at the same time another is closed for updates minimizes bed loss.  Similarly, the schedule can be reconfigured to avoid excessive construction in a single area of campus.

The second document is an interactive budgeting tool.  With it, campus users can explore different funding scenarios for projects, to see the financial impacts of, for example, a slightly different interest rate, or an adjustment in room rates.  Users can also adjust debt-to-cash ratios in their hypothetical budgets to determine best scenarios for affordability.

What Else Should I Know?

Effective planning is comprehensive.  A strong planning team will need to meet with representatives from Student Affairs, Facilities, Transportation, Budget, Dining, and Admissions – just to name a few critical departments.  It’s also quite common to begin a discussion with one department and identify three more to provide valuable information.

Effective planning takes time.  It’s not unusual for a comprehensive Housing Master Plan to develop over the course of an academic year, but this process can be impacted profoundly by schedule organization among all the different stakeholders.  Information comes from a range of campus departments, represented by very busy people.  Scheduling these people separately is difficult, and scheduling them all together is very difficult!

At the end of the process, a strong housing master plan will provide guidance for development to take your campus through the next several years – and provide the richest student experience possible.