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Traditional To Bohemian: Three Kansas Universities Have Differing Visions For Student Housing

Stephan Bisaha
Kansas News Service
Wichita State University's The Flats apartments have full kitchens and come furnished.

To get the best college experience, live on campus.

It’s a common bit of college advice. And at many Kansas universities it’s a requirement — not a suggestion — for new students.

Yet while state universities agree they want to steer students away from commuting, the schools have their own vision on how student housing should look.

Public-private partnerships are becoming as popular for campus living as they are on the academic side. And common spaces for students to mingle are taking up more floor space in most new housing projects.

But there isn’t a singular direction driving the construction: While some schools are doubling down on amenities, others are sticking to a more spartan approach.

State universities adding new living spaces in Kansas each have separate reasons for building their new living spaces. And they each took a different approach for dealing with their campus — and community — needs.

Wichita State University — The Suites

Credit Stephan Bisaha / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service

The Suites is Wichita State’s newest housing option. And as the name implies, the building is meant to signal comfort — if not luxury — to touring students and parents.

There is a media room designed for large-scale gaming sessions. Next door are pool, table tennis and foosball. Apartments have a washer and dryer. The lounge has a full kitchen where students can check out the knives and cooking tools. Or they can make a meal using the kitchenettes in their rooms.

The main reason for the amenity-loaded housing? WSU hopes it will attract more students and turn around struggling enrollment numbers.

“Anything we do here at Wichita State is aimed at recruiting and retaining students,” said Scott Jensen, associate dean of students at WSU.

WSU’s emphasis on recruiting out-of-state students has led to higher demand for housing. Two years ago, about 1,200 students moved into campus housing at the beginning of the fall semester, according to the university. This year the school is expecting as many as 1,500.

Having hassle-free student housing is extra appealing for out-of-state students already balancing the logistics of a long-distance move.

“As you bring in students from further away, they want to see what housing is available,” Jensen said.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
A new foosball table is available for students at The Suites.

That’s part of what motivated WSU to partner with private developer MWCB, LLC to build The Suites. MWCB built another student housing building called The Flats in 2017.

The Suites actually represents a rollback from the luxury offered by The Flats. Unlike The Suites, the apartments in The Flats have balconies, a pool, full kitchens and underground parking.

WSU asked the developer to reduce some of the amenities when constructing The Suites because of cost and safety.

That the university is working with a private developer fits with its desire to bring more private business to the school. The top example of that is WSU's Innovation Campus, where classrooms sit near labs for Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation.

Pittsburg State University — Block 22

Credit Stephan Bisaha / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service

While WSU aims to bring more businesses to the university, Pittsburg State University decided to bring the university to businesses.

Opened last year, Block 22 is a mix of student housing, private businesses and co-working spaces. It’s located in downtown Pittsburg, about a mile from the main campus.

The goal is to attract students not with high-end amenities, but with a more bohemian lifestyle. Students live in a renovated historical building with exposed brick walls, Murphy beds and a unique layout for each apartment. They’re also placed above a coffee shop and co-working space with high speed internet meant to attract remote workers.

Pitt State didn’t need the extra beds: Unlike WSU, Pitt State isn’t attracting more out-of-state students to make up for dwindling enrollment numbers.

Instead, the university created the new apartments to invest in the community. Students bring business downtown while also spreading the university name.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / Kansas News Service
Kansas News Service
A Pittsburg State University student works at a coffee house in the Block 22 apartments.

“Students down there bring not only themselves but their friends and a presence that we hope is contributing — along with a lot of other things — to the environment and the vitality of those areas,” said Steve Erwin, vice president of student life at Pittsburg State.

And students are interested. While the other dorms and apartments at Pitt State are far from full, Block 22 has filled nearly all of its rooms.

What WSU’s new buildings and Pittsburg’s lofts have in common is private involvement. Pitt State, the city and the private housing developer Vecino Group all invested in the project. That’s a growing trend in university housing, driven by declines in state funding and increases in deferred maintenance costs for existing university buildings.

“We’re seeing that a lot across the country,” said Thomas Carlson-Reddig, a partner with Little Diversified Architectural Consulting. “In some cases, it’s desirable for universities. They’d rather have someone else manage that process.”

Emporia State University — Schallenkamp Hall

Credit Ryann Brooks / Emporia Gazette
Emporia Gazette

Emporia State University had thought of adding more lofts downtown. But it figured private student apartments already existed there.

The university considered creating a resort atmosphere with private rooms and pools. But the school said that went against its humble, money-conscious image. Bringing in a private developer to manage the property was also brought up and ultimately tossed aside.

Instead, Emporia State decided to create a classic dormitory with traditional rooms when it built Schallenkamp Hall. Set to open this fall, the building has washers and dryers shared by the floor instead of each room having their own units. The hall has community kitchens but no cooking space in students’ rooms. And students share rooms — no private bedrooms.

Credit Ryann Brooks / Emporia Gazette
Emporia Gazette

The university says there was enough demand to justify adding new beds. But expectations of continued drops in enrollment caused the university to replace its aging housing options rather than add new spots.

“We’re seeing more replacement housing than ever before,” said Jason Taylor, managing director of university partnerships at Greystar.

A new direction Emporia State is going in is expanding its communal spaces. WSU and Pittsburg State have done this as well, but there’s less incentive to use common areas when students have the comfort of their own private rooms.

Taylor says more privacy might be beneficial for older students. But for freshmen, larger study spaces where students are likely to interact with each other rather than stay isolated in their fancy bedrooms can lead to more student success.

“The data tells us that freshman and sophomore students who live in housing of a more traditional type are more likely to have higher levels of student success,” Taylor said.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @SteveBisaha or email him at bisaha (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.