By John Eligon
COLUMBIA, Mo. — Brenden Heiland had breathed the vanilla lavender-scented clubhouse air. He had seen the beach volleyball court, toured the game room equipped with billiards, Ping-Pong and air hockey tables, and learned with delight of the Friday pool parties with a D.J., free food and snow cones, spiked with rum for those of age.
Now, as he and the three friends he was apartment hunting with stood peering at the pool, Heiland, 19, pondered what life might be like if he chose to live in this off-campus complex, the Grove, when his sophomore year at the University of Missouri begins this fall.
“It’s like a vacation, almost,” he said. “I’m not going to go to class — that’s how I look at it.”
As private housing developers try harder than ever to outdo the amenities that their competitors offer in college towns, concern is growing about the academic and social consequences of upscale off-campus student housing.
The spas, tanning salons and sprawling pools offered by these complexes, which often require their tenants to be students, are a far cry from the traditional on-campus residence halls that may house classrooms and faculty and host lectures and academic discussions.
“These are sort of more social environments,” said Arthur J. Lidsky, the president of Dober Lidsky Mathey, a campus planning consultancy. “It takes away from sort of a community of learners, and it creates more of a separate living environment that doesn’t support that mission.”
Even through the recession and the housing crisis, student housing development has remained robust, outperforming other sectors in part because the rising college student population increased the demand for accommodations. Construction of student housing, though down from its peak five years ago, continues to boom, and analysts predict growth in the coming years.
Here in Columbia, a growing supply of upscale student apartments is the result of private developers meeting the demand that the university could not keep up with as its enrollment ballooned. Developers have created more than 3,800 beds of student housing in town since 2011, according to data compiled by John John, a real estate agent here with Remax Boone Realty. But even that pace of development falls short of the need, which John predicted would grow in the future as Missouri’s freshman population climbs. (It is up more than 28 percent since 2007.)
With all the competition, developers are looking for ways to set their properties apart. That has led to the construction of complexes with tanning salons; spas offering manicures, pedicures, facials and massages; 24-hour workout rooms with virtual trainers; and outdoor pools with bars and cabanas. There are washers and dryers that send text messages when a cycle is complete, and exercise machines that allow users to check their email.
The Domain at Columbia, which is set to open here this year, includes a full-swing golf simulator, a video game room and a theater room. On its Web site, which opens with a two-minute video set to music, the development says it has “the largest resort style pool in Columbia and the most over the top amenities.”
“We’re always trying to make it cooler and more hip than the last one,” said Jill Lung, the director of interior design at Sixthriver Architects, who has worked on many student residences.
Some of the projects she has worked on, Lung said, have used technology to create a better learning environment. Some study rooms have flat-screen monitors that students can plug their tablets or computers into and use to collaborate on projects.
Still, college administrators say, those projects fall short of the academic amenities offered on a campus. “We’re trying to integrate our facilities with the academic mission,” said Frankie Minor, Missouri’s director of residential life. “You don’t see the same types of educational programming going on in those facilities as you do in ours.”
Missouri’s residence halls have classrooms and study rooms; visiting faculty members live in some, and they host lectures, discussions and scientific experiments.
But Greg Henry, the chief executive of Aspen Heights, a developer based in Austin, Texas, that will open a 980-bed property here in August, said it was up to the property managers to create an environment conducive to learning. Henry said that his company, which now has 15 student properties nationwide, has been designing its clubhouses to serve as suitable study spaces. On-site staff give the students personalized attention, like birthday greetings or help when they are stressed, he said.
“I don’t think it’s doing bad in the world to provide a nicer space for college students to live and study and rest and play,” Henry said.
Their comforts, some developers argue, will give students less to worry about and allow them to focus more on their schoolwork.
“It lessens the stress,” said Sam Tchen, 22, who has lived in a modern complex in downtown Columbia for the past two years. “You just feel more comfortable in your environment.”
Brookside, the complex where Tchen lives, has a tanning salon and a rooftop pool with a bar and grill run by a local restaurant. The apartments come with a 42-inch flat-screen television, stainless steel appliances, granite countertops and balconies.
Academic concerns aside, some developers, market analysts and city and university officials believe that too much student housing is being built in various college towns and that a bubble could soon burst.
“I think people are looking too much at historic performance,” said Hans G. Nordby, the marketing director of Property and Portfolio Research, a company that analyzes commercial real estate. “They’re working a good horse to death. It’s too much supply.”
Some say the new developments detract from the charm of college towns.
“It’s sort of this mass-produced, soulless luxury,” said Miranda Metheny, a recent Missouri graduate who lives across the street from Brookside in the 176-year-old Niedermeyer Building, which was slated to be razed and replaced with an upscale high-rise before public outcry saved the landmark.
The monthly rates for the modern units in Columbia generally start at $700 per student for a spot in an apartment, about twice the cost of older housing in the area. Yet they are on par with the price of on-campus housing, which equates to about $1,000 a month per bed, meals included.
The differences in price and amenities between the old and the new have fed assumptions around Columbia about the type of students enjoying the more upscale accommodations.
“The people who live there are kind of jerks — not all of them,” said Metheny, 23. “I think they have a sense of entitlement. Even people who grew up with a lot of money, student life is supposed to have certain connotations, like you go without some things.”
Courtney Cooper, 21, who will move into Brookside for her senior year this fall, disputes the stereotype.
“I hear plenty of people that think if you live in Brookside you’re going to be spoiled,” she said. “I don’t think it’s true. Some people, their parents pay for what they want. But I’m chipping in. I wouldn’t say I’m spoiled by any means.”