Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
16th Sep 2013

How much influence does accommodation have on student recruitment?

The variety and quality of accommodations educational institutions offer are presumed to factor into the mix of reasons why prospective students select certain schools. Is this true? And if so, exactly how large of an influence is it? Today, ICEF Monitor looks at student accommodation trends and their level of importance in turning student interest into an application.

The value of accommodations

There are two important aspects of accommodations beyond their role as physical housing:

  1. Recruitment: schools that offer housing may enjoy an advantage in attracting international students.
  2. Retention: various studies from US universities reveal that students who live on campus are more involved in campus life, have a lower dropout rate, and perform at a higher academic level than off-campus students.

The former is a reason why many US community colleges, although not typically known for housing, have begun to change course. The number of two-year institutions providing housing has risen from 225 in 2000 to nearly 400 as of last year. Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, NY, is one such school. Its director of residence life and judicial affairs Darese Doskal-Scaffido told Diverse:

“The residence halls have definitely added to our enrolment and diversified our campus.”

Looking toward Asia, Takushoku University in Japan opened a dormitory in April 2012 at its Hachioji campus in western Tokyo, and this year the facility received three times as many applicants as there were available rooms. University official Mitsuo Nakahora told The Japan Times, “The existence of this dorm apparently convinces students to consider Takushoku as an option when they apply for university.” Shibaura Institute of Technology recently opened a dorm as well, and the school’s general manager of academic affairs Yong Jin Chung, also speaking to The Japan Times, said:

“Stable housing supply for students from abroad is part of the strategy to increase the number of international students and for the globalisation of our university.”

A lack of suitable accommodation is certainly hindering recruitment efforts at New Zealand's Otago Polytechnic's Cromwell campus. Central Otago director Jean Tilleyshort explained that students are choosing not to study there because backpacker accommodation is the only option for some: ''We know that there are a number of people who have come and talked to us that were keen to do the programmes, who haven't ... [enrolled] because they haven't found a suitable place [to stay].''

Catering to specific students

The same message emerges from campus administrators around the globe: housing draws international students. Because of this, not only are community colleges adding dorms, but at universities in countries where student accommodation is typically offered, the number and quality of those lodgings is increasing, and the diversity of the amenities offered is widening. For example, at the University of Colorado’s Boulder Campus, the new residence hall Kittredge Central features an environmentally sustainable design and caters to students in the school’s engineering programme by offering, among other specifics, Spanish language immersion. Diane Sieber, associate dean for education in the university’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, said of the new facility, “While there are successful residence halls for engineers at other universities, [our global engineering programme] - offering cultural and linguistic immersive learning and a focus on global development - is the first programme of its kind.” A different example comes from University College Cork, in Cork, Ireland. There, beginning this autumn, students will be able to apply for residency in an alcohol-free dorm. The measure was conceived as way to combat binge drinking, but also represents another attempt by university administrators to cater to students’ specific living or cultural requirements. Universities have tailored options for specific student groups by providing residences that are co-ed or single sex, secular or faith-based, and more. For example, at Reed College in Oregon, students can choose to live in “theme” dorms that focus on co-operative living, Japanese or Arabic culture, science, outdoor activities, literature, etc. Language immersion residence halls are now a fixture at many universities, and faith-based housing is spreading, too. And it's not just housing facilities that are modifying and expanding options based on student demand; high-quality food service also provides a competitive advantage to institutions these days. "You cannot be one of the premiere universities in the country, and not have the dining programme be on a par with that," proclaims Eric Montell, Stanford University's dining executive director.

"In many cases, he adds, it is students themselves who drive these changes. 'They are much more interested in food today than their parents were. They think about where food comes from, and about the social justice aspects of food production. They think about environmental sustainability, and healthier eating, certainly. They come from all over the globe.'"

From vegan and vegetarian options to halal meat or kosher meals to food allergies, the variety and quality of food options can certainly add to a student's college experience, and even help stave off homesickness for internationals.

Furthermore, when marketing to parents, recruiters might find that amenities such as healthy eating options, modern sports facilities, and safe housing choices can appeal not just in a practical way, but in an emotional sense as well.

With so many residence hall options, it’s important for recruiters to understand which features might attract students and which might repel. While some applicants might find, for example, gender neutral housing uncontroversial, for others it might violate their personal preferences or even their religion. In addition to confirming on paper what is being offered, in order to get 100% acquainted with prospective housing, students and agents should seek to visit the facilities either in person, or, where offered, via virtual tour.

What does research show about housing’s importance?

Despite the boom in student residence construction, there is conflicting research about whether accommodation quality affects school choice. According to property investor advisors Knight Knox International, today’s university students see traditional residence halls as inadequate. An increasing number of students, especially those from overseas, want boutique style accommodations, and such facilities have higher occupancy rates. On the opposite side of the issue, economists Kevin Rask and Amanda Griffith, of Colorado College and Wake Forest University respectively, conducted research on applicants to US universities they claim refutes the idea that students’ school choices are meaningfully affected by dorm quality or other amenities. Their research shows that price and prestige remain the most important factors in school choice. Rask and Griffith’s report concludes that spending money on amenities simply shifts costs at a time when schools might be better served keeping financial burdens down. Their findings suggest that the race universities are engaged in to upgrade student services, dorms, food services, and other amenities may be having little impact on prospective applicants’ college choices. Though Rask and Griffith’s study is strictly US-based, its central conclusion is mirrored in certain other countries. For example, an article in the UK's Independent cautions that companies may be focusing too much on upper tier accommodations, and advises parents and students to look beyond plasma TVs and pay more attention to decision making criteria such as transport links and total cost for housing and food. And in July ICEF Monitor discussed the slide of India’s rupee and what effect it's having on Indian students (who comprised 11% of all global graduates in 2012). International students may be attracted by various housing options, but they must also balance cost savings, especially in countries where a weak or falling currency value makes international exchange rates a challenge for them. Another example comes from the Netherlands, where university students are increasingly choosing cheaper housing with shared facilities, in this case due to the influence of domestic policy regarding financial aid. While this report relates to local rather than foreign students, it does indicate that some students are putting cost before comfort - not too surprising given the influence cost of living has on overall affordability. In the end, exactly how important accommodation type is to prospective students will vary based a student’s home country, culture, expectations, financial situation and personal preferences.

March of the investors

Student accommodations have also drawn the attention of the international private sector, which is sinking large sums into the student housing market as tight university budgets prompt schools to focus on core functions. According to Financial Times, student housing emerged in 2012 as the best-performing asset in both the US and UK real estate markets. Real estate company Savills uncovered a significant shortage of student housing across France, with approximately 342,500 student rooms (in public student accommodation, dedicated social housing, university halls on campus and private student housing) to supply 1.3 million students wishing to live independently. In Germany, the private company Youniq has over 3,700 units in operation or under construction, and plans to build and market 1,500 to 2,500 new student housing units a year. Meanwhile, the UK company Crosslane working with the German company Bauer Capital have teamed up to build student accommodations, and the Victus European Student Accommodation Fund plans to acquire, add 3,000-5,000 student beds throughout Germany over the next five years. And in Africa, the University of Namibia School of Medicine has invited the private sector to take part in the construction of more hostels to accommodate its growing student population, now numbering over 17,000. These are but some of the examples from countries around the globe, suggesting that the sheer profitability of the student housing market will bring more facilities with even greater variety as both private investors and institutions of all forms seek an edge. After all, if there is one conclusion we can draw, it's that when it comes to student housing, there is something for everyone. Editor's Note: See our follow up post on additional developments in the accommodations sector.

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