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October 26, 2023

Community colleges provide essential student support with affordable on-campus housing

  • Amidst skyrocketing rents, prohibitive commutes, and resource scarcity, community college housing gives a more diverse and potentially at-risk group of students access to a bed they can afford, closer to campus services and jobs.



    Community college students are facing multiple challenges including increasing housing and living costs, and a lack of housing options. The unfortunate result is that students are often forced to suspend their educational pursuits. NAC has worked with several community colleges to counter these trends. By offering affordable on-campus housing, community colleges are providing more opportunities for at-risk students and strengthening their academic communities.

    Housing and food insecurity

    The #RealCollege survey is the nation’s largest, longest-running annual assessment of basic needs security among college students. According to a survey of Washington community and technical colleges by #RealCollege for the Hope Center in 2019, colleges seek to address students’ basic needs because housing and food insecurity undermines academic success.

    More than 50% of survey respondents were housing insecure in the previous year, 40% had experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days, and 19% were homeless in the previous year. Marginalized students are at an even greater risk of basic needs insecurity. These groups include American Indian or Alaskan Native students, Black or Indigenous students, students who identify as nonbinary or transgender, and students who are former foster youth or returning citizens.

    These numbers are mirrored in other western states. According to a survey of California community colleges by #RealCollege for the Hope Center in 2021, 60% of respondents had experienced housing insecurity in the previous year.

    At the same time, there is clear evidence that students living on campus are more likely to stay in school, succeed and graduate. In 2021, ACUHO-I published “The Case for Campus Housing: Results from a National Study.” The brief finds that “living on campus has a clear and profound impact on student persistence and engagement.”

    Photo by Lara Swimmer [enlarge]
    New on-campus housing at Bellevue College allows better access to campus resources, proximity to classes, and on-campus jobs.

    Thoughtful planning and design

    Additionally, community colleges are drivers of economic mobility and are inherently far more diverse than four-year institutions. Their mission deserves the benefit of innovative and far-reaching design thinking that works to provide comprehensive solutions for marginalized and at-risk students. By offering housing to their students, community colleges have the opportunity to better support this diverse and potentially at-risk group of individuals.

    On-campus housing, including integrated design strategies, can strengthen a web of administrative and infrastructural tactics suited to the institution’s particular requirements. Adding elements of residential life and providing a “third space” that invites residents and non

    -residents alike helps to free up students’ mental energy and level the academic playing field. Planning and design are important factors in tailoring housing solutions to best fit each campus’ specific issues, location, and demographics. The following projects show what can be done in urban, suburban, and rural environments to overcome skyrocketing rents, prohibitive commutes, and scarcity of resources—giving students access to a bed that they can afford and a location closer to on campus services and jobs.

    From commuter campus to “community of scholars”

    Bellevue College is in one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. According to payscale.com, the cost of housing in Bellevue is 158% higher than the national average, which results in struggle, housing insecurity and increased hardship for many of the college’s 14,000 students.

    In response to a lack of housing options, NAC designed the first on-campus student housing complex for Bellevue College. The dramatic transition from a commuter campus to a 24/7 live/learn pedestrian environment began with a 1,100-bed student life master plan. Collaborating closely with the college, the concept for the entire precinct was to develop a lively, sustainable “community of scholars.”

    Photo by Josh Partee Architectural Photographer [enlarge]
    Chinook Residence Hall is a new two-story, 50-bed residence hall and skills center at Columbia Gorge Community College featuring career-technical programs.

    The project features apartment-style rooms with private kitchens, bathrooms, and living spaces. The new on-campus housing allows better access to campus resources, proximity to classes, and on-campus jobs. A variety of public spaces act as “third-places” providing social and academic support such as dining, public lounges, outdoor gathering areas, and distributed study spaces on each floor. “Our new residence hall represents a monumental opportunity to shift our student experience from a commuter to a 24/7 living-learning community,” says Mike Kaptik, Dean of Student Life and Leadership at Bellevue College. “This project provides more than just beds; it is our first step in creating a thriving educational and social experience for our students.”

    The residence hall has created a hub to bring campus residents and commuter students together. The community-oriented ground floor acts as a living room where the entire campus community can connect, unwind, and grow. Bellevue College provides not only housing but also third-place spaces for all students, and a growing network of support spaces to bolster student success.

    Affordable housing with access to career and student support

    NAC, in collaboration with Opsis Architecture, also assisted Columbia Gorge Community College with its transition from a commuter-based campus to a live/learn residential campus with economical housing options for its students to address affordability and availability of housing. The dual-component project includes a new two-story, 50-bed residence hall and skills center featuring career-technical programs.

    “We knew our students were struggling to find affordable places to live, but it wasn’t until 2018, when we conducted a formal survey, that we recognized the extent of the challenge,” said Dr. Marta Yera Cronin, former CGCC president. “Many students were couch-surfing, staying temporarily with friends. Several were homeless, relying on shelters or living in their cars.”

    Photo by Paul Vu [enlarge]
    For the Hilda L. Solis Care First Village in Los Angeles, the modular construction team delivered 232 full-service dwelling units made from repurposed factory-fabricated shipping containers at half the cost of traditional construction and a quarter of the time.

    Chinook Residence Hall is located in the heart of campus, situating students in the center of classes, including on-site career-technical programs and support services. Open lounges and spaces for informal learning are infused with natural light and dramatic views to encourage gathering of residents and non-residents alike.

    Common kitchens offer students an affordable way to prepare meals as well as a great way to foster social bonds with other students with an outdoor terrace overlooking the main campus. An enclosed study room, two laundry rooms, and bike parking complete the amenities allowing students to focus on studies while learning and growing away from home. Housing on community college campuses not only addresses the need for affordable housing but also has the opportunity to bolster the existing network of on-campus support services.

    Innovation creates new solutions

    NAC is constantly looking for new ways to deliver innovative solutions to their clients, and its leaders are often inspired by smart thinking in other markets. Although not developed for a Community College, the Hilda L. Solis Care First Village in Los Angeles is a housing project that can inspire future thinking.

    Faced with a homelessness crisis in Los Angeles, the challenge was to deliver a cost-effective project on a very tight timeline. The answer? Modular construction. Taking only five months to complete, the modular construction team delivered 232 full-service dwelling units made from repurposed factory-fabricated shipping containers. The final project cost was less than half of traditional construction cost while delivering the project in a quarter of the time of traditional construction.

    The success of this project was grounded in a true collaboration between the owner, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and an integrated modular construction team. NAC believes that the processes and lessons learned at Hilda L. Solis can serve as a repeatable model for providing affordable housing for various markets nationwide and sees opportunity to bring this type of innovative thinking to community colleges student housing solutions.

    Community colleges can play a crucial role in addressing the housing shortage and supporting at-risk students by implementing a holistic approach that encompasses housing solutions, financial support, and community engagement. By addressing these challenges, community colleges can contribute to creating stronger, more inclusive communities, and improving the overall educational experience for their students, resulting in both higher student retention rates as well as increased transfer to four-year institutions.

    Kate McLean is a senior associate and digital practice specialist in NAC’s Seattle office. Saif Vagh is an associate principal in NAC’s Los Angeles office, and a leader in the higher education practice.

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