Paper-thin dorm room walls and fire alarms at dawn are typical expectations of four-year college student life, but not exactly what one thinks of when envisioning life at a community college.
The vast majority of American community colleges do not offer on-campus housing. But a handful built their first dorms decades ago, and as two-year institutions become a more common destination for traditional-age students seeking lower tuition costs and/or an education close to home, more community colleges are in the process of building singles, doubles, triples and larger apartments for their students.
Of the 1,100 colleges represented by the American Association of Community Colleges, 233 public colleges and about 40 private colleges offer some on-campus housing to their students. Norma Kent, the association's spokeswoman, said that although "nobody's documented the full picture, it is our sense that there is increased interest and growth" in campus housing at community colleges.
"With more traditional-age students enrolling at community colleges for a variety of reasons, colleges and students seem more receptive to on-campus housing," she said. "They want that college experience."
At Jackson Community College, in Jackson, Mich., the first 96 residents of the Campus View Learning and Living Community will move in next month. Rooms are apartment-style suites with four single bedrooms, two bathrooms, a full eat-in kitchen and hardwood floors.
Cindy Allen, Jackson's director of community relations, said that when Daniel J. Phelan, the college's president, first proposed building on-campus housing, there was skepticism within the college and the local community. "People were saying, 'This is not what community college is about,' " Allen said. "But we did two surveys ... and found that it was exactly what would bring traditional-age students here."
The college started small, beginning with the $6.8 million, 24-suite building that opens this year. Just the first of three residential buildings planned on the campus, Allen said that Phelan "will probably go to the trustees in a month or two to say, 'We've filled this dorm, let's get started on building another.' " One survey found that about 700 students wanted to live on campus; a more conservative study estimated 400 students.
Monroe Community College , in Rochester, N.Y., is another college relatively new to on-campus housing where demand is swelling. Rooms for the college’s first 410 residents opened in the fall of 2003 and rooms for another 366 students are set to open this fall.
In the four years since the first group of students moved on campus, Susan M. Salvador, the college’s vice president for student services, said that students have developed “a different sense of community among themselves and on campus.”
The college, she said, “has needed to adapt to students being here 24-7” with improved dining and health services, intramural sports and extracurricular activities. The dorms have hosted dodgeball games, pre-Halloween pumpkin carving and move-in day barbeques and ice cream socials.
Salvador said that all Monroe’s beds have been filled for the fall and that some students are now on a waiting list, adding that the new $18.4 million Canal Hall “is absolutely needed” to meet demand.
The 1,100 square-foot rooms are a combination of four-person and five-person suites with either three or four bedrooms, as well as a furnished living room, a kitchen and two bathrooms. Single bedrooms cost $2,935 per semester and double bedrooms are $2,645 per semester.
At Monroe, 88 percent of residents are 18-20 years old and 12 percent are 21-28 years old. Over all, 34 percent of the college's students are 20 or younger. Another 31 percent are 21 to 24 and 35 percent of the college's students are 25 or older. The college has 10,000 full-time students who would be eligible for housing. International students, Salvador said, make up a very small number of residents. Most residents live in-state or elsewhere in the United States.
“Most campuses with big international populations don’t have on-campus housing,” said Judy Irwin, director of international programs and services at the community college association. She estimated that only about 20 percent of community colleges with international students offer housing.
Irwin said that when students ask about housing on her semi-annual recruitment trips to Europe, Asia and Latin America, they “want to have confidence in knowing they will have the assistance of the college in finding housing,” but they generally don’t distinguish between dorms, off-campus rentals or stays with local families. “I’d say that not having dorms doesn’t stop international students from going to a particular college.”
Nonetheless, on-campus housing can be an attractive option for international students, as well as for students interested in learning about other countries’ cultures. Dennis Gibbons, director of student housing at Mohawk Valley Community College , in Utica, N.Y., said that “the dorms create a tremendous learning opportunity for all our residents.”
“For internationals,” he added, “it’s a way for them to learn American culture. For all the Americans, they get to learn about these other countries."
Mohawk Valley, Gibbons said, was the first New York community college to offer on-campus housing. The college built its first two dorms, housing about 350 students, in the 1960s, and added the 155-bed, suite-style New Hall in 2005.
The dorms, he said, are home to many students who live too far away to commute to campus -- whether in New York, out of state or internationally -- as well as to the growing population of traditional-age students who seek “a holistic college experience” even at a community college. Depending on room and meal plan choice, housing for one semester costs between $2,000 and $4,000.
By the numbers, most community colleges with dorms house only a small fraction of their students on campus.
College of the Siskiyous , in Weed, Calif., for example, has 136 beds and about 3,000 enrolled students. Casper College , in Casper, Wyo., houses 34 percent of first-year students and 14 percent of all students on its campus. The town has a population of about 50,000, making it the state’s second-largest city after Cheyenne, population 53,000, which is a three-hour drive away.
Cloud County Community College , in Concordia, Kan., built on-campus apartments in the 1970s that now house 240 students and are "always filled to capacity," Janet Eubanks, director of residential life, said, estimating that 95 percent of the residents live too far away to commute to campus on a daily basis.
Survival of the 1960s dorm at Yakima Valley Community College  in Yakima, Wash., seemed bleak a few years ago, Larry Bailes, the college's housing manager, said. As recently as the 2004-5 academic year, occupancy rates lingered at around 15 percent. Students said that the required meal plan was too expensive and not useful to them. Rather than end a service useful to a small contingent of students, the college closed the dorm's dining hall and kept room rates affordable.
Bailes said the dorms are at least $50 per month cheaper than comparable local apartments, with monthly rates ranging from $275 for a double to $325 for a large single. The dorms are now filled almost to capacity each semester.
“The people who choose to live here,” Bailes said, “have a very, very strong community.” About 50 of the 135 residents of the college’s dorm are athletes and, during basketball games, “the dorm empties out so that they can cheer on each other.” They start groups for support, tutoring and prayer as needed and “socialize, particularly on the weekends when the campus is otherwise sort of dead.”
But the residents are a very small proportion of the 4,700 students enrolled on the Yakima campus, and though they are “extremely protective of each other,” Bailes said he “[doesn’t] see that it brings the whole student population any closer, since it is primarily a commuter college.”