Community colleges add amenities to attract students

By Kelly Kaufhold

When I got turned down for a job years ago, I asked the prospective boss why, and he said I needed more class (not the kind you get from society). He suggested that I take on some additional, alternative studies. This sent me and my bachelor's degree back to school -- a community college -- for some new skills that helped me land my next job.

Supplemental education is just one of many roles community colleges play in the grand scheme of things -- a supplement for many four-year graduates looking to gain additional knowledge and skills. This is also what makes them different from bigger state schools and most universities. But now an added amenity on campus could have these neighborhood colleges recruiting -- and competing -- with the big boys.

That secret weapon is housing. More and more community colleges are building dormitories on campus. Some are doing it as a recruiting tool, to lure a better grade of students while others are adding beds simply to serve their community and students better.

In some schools, dorms are something that has been needed for years, but the money simply hasn't been there until now. That's the dynamic at Central Wyoming College in Riverton, Wyoming. There isn't another college within 100 miles so some students drive 90 minutes each way to attend class. That, plus enrollment is up 15 percent since 1996. Now, with more than 1,500 students, Central Wyoming has 135 on-campus beds. School leaders say the dorm is just one new way to better serve students.

It's the same story at Fon du Lac Tribal and Community College in Cloquet, Minnesota. "It's a small community college, it's a tribal and state college, and some of the purposes were to raise the Native American enrollment, and to give options to residents across the state. It's a union of cultures," says Bruce Carlson, the Housing Director at Fon du Lac.

"Our main priority is just to give an opportunity to kids to get the education they wouldn't have if the dorms weren't here." That idea appears to be working. "Fall semester was our first semester. Right now it's above 50%, and we expect that to go up."

Dixie Dorman, a 24-year-old sophomore studying Native American issues, is a resident administrator in the dorm who says on-campus housing helps students achieve better marks on their report cards. "I would say it's had a factor in some grades. I mean, you're right here and have all the things that you need, and so long as you're willing, there are people to help you. It's better than being 19 and moving out on your own, and there's support groups for them." Plus, Dorman says, living on campus saves her money over driving to school every day.

Carlson, Fon du Lac's Housing Director, is proud of the school's new dorms and says it's serving as an example for other community colleges looking to add beds to their campuses.

  "It's a state of the art heating system, security system. I think they put about $1,800 in security in this building. We've had dorm directors come from other schools to look at this facility. We have 100 beds now, but when it's done, it'll have about 250 beds. It's a 10 year project."

That's the dream for housing officials at Central Wyoming. They'd like to add another 72 bed dorm and charge residents about $2,000 a year in rent, but they need to dip into local neighbors' pockets to pay for it. Taxpayers already shot down a three-and-a-half million-dollar bond issue to fund the project last spring. That raises two questions: Who pays for community college housing? And who profits from it?

Collin County Community College has a Spring Creek Campus in Plano, Texas, which is home to a brand new dorm that comes with a pool, satellite TV - even personal computer networking lines to hook up with campus computers. And although school officials didn't have to pay a dime for it, they still own it.

Century Campus Housing Management, a Houston company that bought the land from the school, built the 296-bed dorm and now runs it. "The development company built it, we manage it, but it's owned by Collin County Community College District Foundation," says Jim Short, president of Century Campus.

"All we do is manage on-campus housing, mostly built by the development company. Four of the facilities that we manage were built by universities." In each case, the colleges share in the profits. The Collin County Foundation's cut could reach a quarter-of-a-million dollars in the 1999-2000 school year.