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Adding on-campus housing can help address student needs, but leaders must consider many factors before breaking ground.

Many community college students lack access to affordable housing. Community college trustees looking to address this issue may consider adding on-campus student housing. While most community colleges historically have not provided housing, nearly one-third (28 percent) of community colleges now offer it to students, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

On-campus housing represents a way for community colleges to provide affordable housing options to their in-district, out-of-area, and international students. In addition to meeting the needs of students, on-campus housing also enables a community college to market itself to a student population that is seeking a residential campus experience. 

Nestled in the Rocky Mountains, Flathead Valley Community College (FVCC) in Kalispell, Montana, offers students exceptional academic offerings and outdoor adventures in one of the most picturesque areas of the country. Traditionally a commuter campus, FVCC began offering on-campus housing to students in 2017. The on-campus housing complex is comprised of 124 beds in full-service apartments (24 single units and 50 two-bedroom units). 

For community college leaders, the decision to construct on-campus housing requires a thorough analysis of funding sources, housing demand, and staff support that can all affect their investment and its long-term success. Examining FVCC’s journey to reach our decision to offer on-campus housing illustrates many of these factors.

Know Your Market and Student Needs

The FVCC Board of Trustees identified the lack of affordable housing for local and out-of-area students and decided to explore on-campus housing. The board realized the importance of exploring student demand and the feasibility of developing and maintaining on-campus housing before making any commitment. FVCC’s initial experience with housing began with a pilot program that ran from fall 2011 to summer 2017. The college leased a 15-unit offsite apartment complex comprised of two-bedroom apartments. 

This initial experience in providing student housing led to further discussions about the development of on-campus housing. In 2015, FVCC contracted with an independent firm to conduct an assessment of the local rental and housing market and an assessment of student interest. These assessments included an off-campus housing market analysis, a student survey analysis, and a student housing demand analysis. The results yielded extensive insights into the housing challenges experienced by FVCC students. 

The assessment determined that the rental market in Kalispell and surrounding communities was cost-prohibitive to students and provided limited housing options. Unit availability was also a significant challenge for students, with area apartment communities averaging a 99 percent occupancy rate.

The assessment also included an online survey conducted to test housing preferences and project student demand. Valuable data gathered from 521 participants, including FVCC students, prospective students, and their parents indicated demand among each of the targeted groups. Eighty percent of parents and potential students indicated the availability of on-campus housing was either very important or important in the decision to attend college. Twenty-nine percent of FVCC students indicated the availability of housing as very important or important in their decision to attend FVCC. 

Following a review of the student housing market and demand assessment in July 2015, the FVCC Board requested the development of a student housing feasibility study to identify costs for constructing and maintaining student housing. In December 2015, the board approved the student housing feasibility study and voted unanimously for the college to move forward with the development and construction of on-campus housing. FVCC chose a site for the on-campus student housing that provided students with access to grocery stores, restaurants, movies, etc., all within a short walk of one-half to one mile.

Project Funding

Trustees should carefully consider their options for funding. State laws governing how community colleges fund facility construction projects may affect the choices made by the trustees. 

In 2016, Montana state law did not permit the use of revenue bonds as a funding mechanism for community colleges, so FVCC chose to pursue financing for the project through a request for proposal process. Two local banks partnered and were awarded the contract for the loan.

The board approved funding in July 2016, and construction of the facility was completed just prior to the start of fall classes in August 2017.

Title IX and Clery Act Considerations

The addition of on-campus housing impacts the manner in which community colleges manage the implementation of Title IX and Clery Act responsibilities. Title IX is a federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding. Under the Clery Act, colleges and universities are required to report campus crime data, support victims of crime, and publicly outline the policies and procedures developed to improve campus safety. 

The addition of student housing can present new challenges for managing the implementation of Title IX and Clery Act procedures. The grouping of students, particularly in a housing setting, will increase the likelihood of different types of incidents occurring on a campus. 

When incidents occur on a campus or public property immediately adjacent to a campus, community colleges must be prepared, if necessary, to conduct both an investigation under Title IX and determine whether a timely warning should be issued to all staff and students as directed under the Clery Act. 

Given how Title IX is interconnected with the Clery Act in many ways, it is important to determine whether additional student services staff will be necessary to manage these institutional responsibilities. FVCC has trained a team of staff and faculty that, in addition to their regular responsibilities, serve as Title IX liaisons and investigators, with the dean of student affairs serving as the official FVCC Title IX coordinator.

Campus Safety

Community colleges must consider the need for additional campus security measures with on-campus housing. While some community colleges employ full-time campus security personnel, alternative security measures commonly used include security cameras, call boxes, enhanced lighting, and key fobs for dormitory entry. FVCC has partnered with our local police department to create a campus resource officer position. FVCC also employs the use of various security measures to monitor activities on campus. 

Staffing Demands

Staffing requirements are an important consideration when assessing on-campus housing. The management of student housing can often result in student services staff absorbing new responsibilities or require the creation of new positions. FVCC hired a director of residence life who is supported by four student resident assistants. Additional facilities and custodial positions may also be required to address repairs and to maintain the appearance of common areas, student rooms, hallways, lobbies, and lounges. 

Expanding Campus Activities

When students are living on campus, keeping them engaged outside of class, particularly during evenings and weekends, is critical and may require facility and operational changes. FVCC has expanded campus activities for students, including extended library hours and additional academic support programs, increased social events, and new volunteer opportunities. 

Student housing allows students to build a unique sense of community and creates an environment for enhanced social and academic growth. In addition, a college can expand collaborative partnerships with local businesses that are often interested in providing students discount coupons for their products and services.

Embrace the Experience

Exploring the possibilities for student housing at your college takes time and thoughtful discussion and analysis of multiple data. Open strategic communication involving college leadership, the board of trustees, staff, and students is key for any large institutional endeavor. Regardless of the outcome, the information gained from a discovery process will be beneficial in moving forward and establishing goals and an action plan to address student needs for success. 

Jane A. Karas, Ph.D., is president of Flathead Valley Community College in Kalispell, Montana.

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