The state's public community colleges, designed as commuter schools a half-century ago, are seeking to build student housing, saying they want to offer a richer, more traditional college experience.
The move could change the profile of the schools -- which long have been comfortable places for older students or those with children and jobs, whose lives are led primarily off-campus. Educators say housing will both add a more cohesive feel to student life and provide a financial cushion for students, many of whom lack the means to pay for both housing and their education without working full time. The change could prevent students from dropping out, educators say.
''We have many students who would love to have affordable housing but don't have it, and, as a result, work way too many hours and can't attend to their studies," said Robert Pura, the president of Greenfield Community College, which plans to build housing for single parents.
The proposals to build housing on three campuses -- Mount Wachusett in Gardner, Cape Cod in West Barnstable, and Greenfield -- are in the early stages. Financing has not yet been determined, nor has the design of the residences been chosen.
As of now, no community college has residential space on campus. Fitchburg State and Mount Wachusett Community College have an agreement that allows some Mount Wachusett students to live on campus at Fitchburg.
The state Board of Higher Education, which plans to study the idea for six months to a year, must approve the residential construction. The colleges need to figure out how they would pay for the housing and expect they may have to raise the money from private sources.
State officials say the residences, on some campuses, could help improve the community colleges' graduation rates, which are below the national average.
''Housing could make it easier to pursue a degree or at least to advance through the system," said Stephen Tocco, chairman of the Board of Higher Education.
Tocco said that housing could allow students to exit difficult family living situations, which can be a drag on their studies. In other cases, it could alleviate financial strains and long commutes -- particularly for a school like Cape Cod Community College.
The school, with some 4,000 students, is the only community college on the Cape and is as far as 50 miles from some students' homes, according to school officials. In addition, students must grapple with the high cost of living on the Cape, particularly during the summer season when rents can climb.
Last year, the school conducted a feasibility study of building campus housing and found that there could be demand for more than 320 beds, by conservative estimates. It has not yet determined the cost of construction.
Jarred Kalweit, 21, an economics major at Cape Cod Community College and a student trustee, said that while some students question the need for the housing, even more cheer the idea of a more traditional campus.
''Cape Cod can get really bleak in the winter, and if we had a place for students to hang around, a place that would be central, I think we could really benefit from that," Kalweit said.
He said for a student like himself, who lives at home, the housing would cost more, but ''I wouldn't have to use a car, and gas is a huge deal around here."
If the state goes forward with building the community college residences, it would join a national trend. Roughly 250 community colleges, out of some 1,200 schools across the country, offer housing, compared with only 60 colleges six years ago.
Norma Kent, a spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges, said that the trend has become more pronounced as schools see great numbers of younger students who tend to require housing and want a four-year-college style campus. Massachusetts too has seen an increase in the number of younger students -- those under age 22 -- attending community colleges.
State officials caution that the housing might not be appropriate for every campus. And the housing could vary from campus to campus. Some would be targeted at particular populations -- like the Greenfield campus proposal to build housing for single parents that would also have a child-care center on site. But others, such as Cape Cod, would be available to all students.
At Mount Wachusett, President Daniel Asquino said he envisions a mix of residences -- some for a general student population, and some for single parents. He said a study showed that there could be demand for some 300 students, at an estimated cost of construction at $13 million.