The new campus crib

Barracks-style dorms becoming things of the past as schools offer upscale living to lure top students

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sarah Schweitzer
Globe Staff / April 27, 2008

On the hilltop campus, where a sleek music center recently opened and a state-of-the-art science building is planned, a group of freshmen fear that Tufts University is in danger of being "outclassed." The problem, as documented in a 12-page student critique delivered to administration officials last month, is that dormitory common rooms are dreary spaces with carpets that "clash with furniture," couches that are "haphazardly arranged," and lighting that does not "work with the mood of the room."

Don't get them started on the window dressings.

The students recommend the hiring of an interior designer.

"These are basic necessities . . . to make the rooms more inviting," said Chas Morrison, a freshman from Weston, Conn., and co-author of the critique.

Far from scoffing, administration officials say the students are right and have begun looking into possible improvements.

"A coordinated interior design approach to the routine replacement of carpet and furniture would benefit us," said Bruce Reitman, Tufts dean of students.

Gone is the era when cinder block walls, polyester couches, and triples were dorm de rigueur. College students today are arriving on campuses with ratcheted-up expectations for the aesthetics and comforts of their homes-away-from-home. And increasingly, colleges are scrambling to meet student expectations in the hope of luring top applicants.

Across the region, overhauls and construction are underway to add elan to campus living. Harvard University this month announced plans for an ambitious dormitory overhaul that will gut and renovate a dozen buildings. At Boston University, a $100 million pair of towers is under construction next to another pair that opened in 2000, at a cost of $85 million. Eight hundred and seventeen juniors and seniors make their homes in the towers, where they can sip espresso in a cafe or relax in a penthouse lounge with panoramic city views. Suites of rooms come with kitchens and private bathrooms.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology six years ago opened the architecturally hailed Simmons Hall with custom-made Scandinavian-style furniture and walls of windows in the rooms. MIT has equipped all its dorms with fitness rooms, and is adding dance studios and music practice rooms with baby grand pianos.

Plasma screen televisions, 42-inch minimum, wireless Internet, and surround sound are now standard-issue in 80 percent of Boston College dorm lounges. Northeastern University, which has opened 11 new dorms since 1999, has installed LaundryView, permitting students to check on the status of their laundry via computer, and made available a laundry service that, for a fee, will pick up, wash, fold and deliver laundry back to a dorm in a day's time.

Schools are quick to say that upgrades are not intended to turn dorms into luxurious castles. Rather, administrators say, the changes simply mirror what students have grown up with - homes that are more spacious, more technology-blitzed than those of students even a decade earlier.

"Society has changed," said Karen Nilsson, senior associate dean for student life with a focus on residential life at MIT. "These students who have had their own rooms, their own bathrooms all their lives. They are going off to college and looking for those kinds of things."

At Boston University, the towers draw raves from students.

"It's like luxury living in Boston," said Alexandra Cioper, a sophomore from New Bedford who is hoping for a lottery-won spot in the coveted dorm.

The hitch, students say, is that the towers are probably nicer than anything they'll live in after they graduate.

"They might be setting up an unrealistic expectation for life," Cioper said.

The comforts come with a price tag. A single in a four-person suite with a kitchen and two bathrooms in the towers at 10 Buick St. next year costs $12,360 per person per academic year, while a single in a standard dormitory is $9,790.

For years, students expected dorms to be little more than barracks, with rooms sleeping two or more and few frills. In the period after World War II, when college populations ballooned, schools built concrete bunker-like dorms that were functional, economical, and little more. Today, colleges say, those dorms often rank at the bottom of student preferences - spurned as ugly, dark, and unwelcoming.

As colleges try to respond to calls for higher-end dorms, they find themselves in an arms race of sorts. Students are comparing the facilities and choosing colleges based, in part, on the residential profiles. The schools, in their chase for top students and top rankings, are scrambling to offer even more dorms on par with those of their competitors.

Andy O'Laughlin, a Tufts freshman from Carlisle, lives in Bush Hall, a squat building constructed in 1959 where the common room is a pass-through space with a smattering of couches, pool tables, and a large-screen television that five students, including O'Laughlin, pooled $100 to buy this year.

It is a far cry from his dorm ideal, drawn from literature.

"I was thinking Harry Potter," he said.

Benji Cohen, a freshman from Cambridge and Bush Hall resident, and a television-purchase contributor, said he, too, has been disappointed.

"I knew it wasn't going to be Harvard because we are not Harvard, but I thought Tufts is a great school, and this is really bad," he said.

Tufts officials say they are working to upgrade their dorms. In 2006, the school opened Sophia Gordon, a $22 million, eco-friendly dorm with suites outfitted with modern couches and full kitchens.

Officials say that Sophia Gordon is the gold standard, one they hope all their other dorms will match or surpass. For now, though, with resources limited, the older dorms must remain, and complaints are mounting.

"The irony is that once you do something that students are really excited about, then by comparison, everything else looks drab," Reitman said. "We do our best, but we are not providing what they are used to."

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