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Brescia University College students Amanda Cox, right, and Chelsea Rose tour one of the common areas of the new residence building which is still under construction in London, Ont. (GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail)
Brescia University College students Amanda Cox, right, and Chelsea Rose tour one of the common areas of the new residence building which is still under construction in London, Ont. (GEOFF ROBINS/The Globe and Mail)

Canadian University Report 2014: Residence

Queen-sized beds, full kitchens, big closets: the new residence Add to ...

Students moving into Brescia University College’s newly opened residence this year will enjoy tastefully-appointed private rooms with queen-sized beds and extra-large closets. The 310-bed residence hall also features Wi-Fi, a fitness room, spacious common lounges on each floor and a market-style dining pavilion run by a chef who can accommodate the dietary needs of vegans, vegetarians and gluten-free diners. Not feeling well? Order in room service. Floor mate celebrating a birthday? Bake her a cake in one of the fully-equipped kitchens.

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“When we thought about designing our new residence, we thought about a beautiful space that women would enjoy,” says Marianne Simm, director of student affairs and registrar at the all-female college, which is part of the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont. All first-year students will be guaranteed a room in the new building and one floor will be reserved for returning students. Brescia plans to use the new space as a revenue-generating conference facility in the summer months. But the upgraded amenities also reflect a growing trend among universities as they move to replace or refurbish aging residence facilities and build new ones.

A mini-building boom is under way at campuses across Canada as universities strive to meet the rising demand for residence space. As more and more schools provide a residence guarantee to freshmen and recruit higher numbers of international students, demand for residence rooms is on the upswing. And so is the demand for luxe options by students and their parents who are seeking a closer match to a student’s home life.

Though the number of posh residences is growing, most students can still expect to bunk down in an old-school dorm room with a shared bath, says Chad Nuttall, manager of student housing services at Ryerson University in Toronto and president of the Ontario Association of College and University Housing Officers. “That still makes up a giant chunk of the stock.”

And that’s not such a bad thing because the traditional dorms, though less aesthetically pleasing, better promote a sense of community, especially important for first-year students, he adds. Research shows that students who develop an attachment to their community are much less likely to drop out. “There’s almost nothing that contributes more to retention than living in residence,” Nuttall says. “There’s a network of support. You develop friends.” And that’s easier done in a communal living space, however downmarket it may be, than in a private room.

Many of the new residence halls being built, though not necessarily high-end, feature apartment-style units with three or four bedrooms and a shared kitchen and bathroom – such as Ryerson’s 500-bed facility under construction and set to open in 2016. Students housed in these units will be sharing with fewer people but still sharing, Nuttall notes. Ryerson’s new building also comes with a yoga studio, but Nuttall admits, that’s just a modern way of saying multipurpose room.

Whatever the style or layout, living in residence “makes the transition from home to university much easier,” says Amal Awini, residence operations manager at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon. “We want to create an environment for students to connect with other students, especially in first year,” she says. “We don’t want them isolated.”

Home sweet home

Residence can be an important transition for freshmen, many of whom haven’t lived away from home before. “We try as much as possible to transition them,” she says. “We don’t want to do everything for them because we want to prep them to be on their own.” At the same time, trained resident assistants keep a lookout for those who may be struggling.

To further ensure a safe and successful transition, many schools offer residence-life programs. One increasingly popular option is learning living communities (LLC); typically they are residence floors that have been set aside for students enrolled in the same academic program or those with a shared interest. McGill University in Montreal offers five LLCs: fine arts, green, do-it-yourself, food, and health and fitness. Students in the Fine Arts LLC attend guided tours of art exhibits and theatre performances. Those in the food LLC take part in iron-chef competitions and cooking classes. Ryerson has an LLC for its fashion students and another for those enrolled in the faculty of community service. It has others that promote leadership skills and healthy living and a new one introduced this year for management students. “We are really seeing good results from those communities, even higher retention rates,” Nuttall says.

Residence is no longer an area seen as simply a place to house students, adds Simm at Brescia. The college doesn’t offer LLCs but it does provide programs aimed at fostering leadership development, and good mental health and well-being. Residents can also enjoy cooking classes and organized outings. Simm says Brescia intentionally rejected apartment-style suites when designing its new residence and was careful to include large common gathering spaces on each floor to promote a sense of community.

Surveys show that while students are generally satisfied with their residence experience, the quality of the food remains a constant sticking point. According to a 2011 survey of undergraduate students by the Canadian University Survey Consortium, the most recent year for which figures are available, when asked what services need improving, one in three students said food. Universities that operate their own dining facilities, such as Guelph University in Guelph, Ont., and Brescia, usually provide better fare. Guelph says that as much as 45 per cent of the food it serves is locally sourced when in season, including honey from its own research farm. No wonder that it formerly ranked No. 1 for food services in the Canadian University Report and has won awards for its green initiatives. But many universities contract out food services, with typically less appetizing results.

Meal plans vary among campuses. Some make it mandatory for students who live in residence while others don’t. Some meal plans allow students to eat at all campus food outlets while others restrict users to the main dining hall. Schools are also trying to accommodate the preferences of international students who make up a growing proportion of residents.

Shopping for shelter

Costs for residence spaces can vary widely depending on a city’s land prices, vacancy rates and the amenities and services offered. At the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, prices range from $5,200 for a shared room in a dorm with a small meal plan to $11,000 for a single room and full meal plan in its newest residence, Pembina Hall. The building, which opened in 2011, includes 360 single rooms with a private bath and a wall in each unit with floor-to-ceiling glass offering views of the Winnipeg cityscape to the north and the Red River to the south. “It has a very modern urban loft sort of look inside and out,” says Barry Stone, director of student residences.

“Students want privacy,” he says. “The notion of having a community bathroom or shower doesn’t seem attractive.”

At Manitoba, students can select the residence building they wish to live in and even a specific room when applying, an option more and more universities are offering. For most the decision is driven by cost, Stone says. Students can also ask to be housed with a specific roommate or paired with someone with shared preferences and lifestyle based on an online profile.

Another top priority for students and parents is security. “They’re worried,” Nuttall at Ryerson says.

Some campuses require students to swipe a card or show personal identification to gain access to the building while others rely more on security cameras.

Crime and sexual assault aren’t just big-city issues and all schools “spend quite a lot of energy and resources making sure our spaces are safe and secure.”

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