The Stuff Factor

August 22, 2007

As she did her usual move-in day sweep of residence halls, Kathy B. Hobgood, director of residence life at Clemson University, noticed students in a dozen or so rooms unpacking their flat-screen televisions -- items that until recently might have been spotted in a campus café but certainly not in a dorm.

Up and down the halls, people piled their electronic gadgets on top of storage cubes and dishware, leaving behind a monumental trail of cardboard and packing foam.

"The volume of stuff is alarming," says Hobgood, who is publications coordinator for the Association of College and University Housing Officers International. "This pile of boxes ... you wouldn't believe."

Housing directors all over -- and not just in places that tend to attract wealthy students -- are reporting an increase in the number of belongings students bring with them to college. Carloads, they say, are becoming the norm.

Students see their dorm rooms as very much a work in progress when they arrive, says Charles Cadwallader, director of the Services and Recognition Office of the National Association of College and University Residence Halls, a student-run housing organization. "We're getting away from the spartan image of residence halls as buildings with just the bare necessities. They are more places where you can study and hang out, and are now competing with the freedom of an off-campus apartment."

Norb Dunkel, director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida and president-elect of the housing officers' group, says he notices students bringing with them "just about everything you can see on the Best Buy shelf."

Today's dorm residents tend to be more interested in room aesthetics than were their counterparts years ago, Dunkel says, and that includes coordinating colors and product purchases with roommates. That's increasingly possible because of social networking Web sites like Facebook that allow dorm pairs to discuss what to bring months before they live together, says Sean Duggan, managing director of housing and residential life at Texas Tech University.

Seemingly every daytime television show has done its "must-have dorm accessory" segment; "What to pack for college" columns are some of the most popular Web features this time of year. No one is talking about shower baskets and dry-erase boards, either. It's color-coordinated futon covers and lamps with energy-saving florescent bulbs. New gadgets are a must for many students, as are updated models of the old dorm standbys like floor lamps and turbo fans.

Back to college has become big business. According to an annual survey from the National Retail Federation, students and their parents are spending $5.43 billion this season on dorm and apartment furnishings, up from $3.82 billion a year ago. The survey shows that they will spend a combined average of $956.93 per student on back-to-college merchandise, up from last year’s $880.52.

Retailers are seeing the college population as the perfect niche market. "The college student is being marketed to more because of his spending ability," says Duggan, the Southern district representative for ACUHO-I. "Before you could never find extra-long sheets, but now companies do their research."

Both Bed Bath & Beyond and Wal-Mart are in the midst of back-to-college marketing campaigns filled with items (cooking apparatuses, magazine racks, etc.) that seem directed just as much at the graduate student living alone than at the freshman living in a residence hall suite. Target's "College 07" campaign has the basics -- bathroom items, storage bins, bed comforters -- as well a number of products that are designed with college students in mind, says Ana Williams, a spokeswoman for the company. Those items are particularly compact or can be collapsed to fit into storage in small rooms.

The extent to which smart marketing is driving the public perception of the student as consummate consumer is debatable. Cadwallader, the NACURH director who is a senior at the University of Washington, says companies play a significant role in promoting the burgeoning move-in list. "It's being hyped up -- the idea that every student is taking all this stuff to campus," he says. "Some are, some aren't. There's certainly been a demand [for more products], and retailers see where they can make inroads."

Added Nick Nicklaus, director of residence life at the University of Wisconsin at La Crosse and treasurer of ACUHO-I: "The retailers are definitely trying to sell [students] on the need for some things, as opposed to saying these are nice luxuries -- the entertainment centers, carpeting and ergonomic desk chairs."

Hobgood, the Clemson residence life director, says many international and first-generation college students come without carloads of boxes. (She emphasized, too, that only a dozen out of thousands of students she saw had the plasma televisions.)

But Dunkel of Florida frames what he's noticing in a different way. "I don't know that the hype is driving it. When you're brining in millenials, you're also bringing in the boomer parents who are conscious of what their sons and daughters have."

And it seems that housing directors largely accept the fact that students will bring more and more to campus. "At this point it becomes a question of what can we do?" said James Baumann, a spokesman for ACUHO-I. "For better or worse, we need to respond."

Baumann says colleges are rethinking how to build spaces for student living. New designs of the future residence hall include room features like fold-up beds and futons that enable students to have more space for their belongings, according to Baumann. At Clemson, common areas in suites come unfurnished. The thinking, Hobgood says, is that students want to make their own purchases.

Nicklaus, of UW-La Crosse, says that because students are asking to bring in their own mattresses and furniture, the university is considering giving students an option of moving into what amounts to an empty room (for less money) or moving into a traditional furnished room (for more).

With all sorts of new products entering university housing, Cadwallader said the mindset of housing officials might change, as well. "Instead of lists of what to bring, now it's lists of what not to bring."

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