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Pricey campus housing triggers a debate in Boston

A Northeastern residence hall run by a private developer will open in the fall.
A Northeastern residence hall run by a private developer will open in the fall. (Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe)

At the newest residence hall for Northeastern University students, kitchens come with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. Floor-to-ceiling windows bathe rooms in sunshine, and residents can exercise in a state-of-the-art fitness center or study by a fireplace in the lobby.

The dorm room has gone upscale.

But when they open this fall, units at LightView Apartments will come at a price, one likely out of reach for many low-income Northeastern students or those on financial aid.

Run by a private developer, LightView requires an annual lease that makes it more expensive than traditional campus housing with eight-month terms: beginning at $16,008 a year for a shared room, and $19,068 for a single, compared to $12,504 for the most expensive on-campus shared dorm, and $14,698 for a single. Meanwhile, students on full financial aid at Northeastern receive about $15,660 for room and board, leaving them far short of LightView’s annual costs.

“This is luxury-style housing,” said Nick Boyd, 22, a senior at Northeastern studying electrical engineering and member of the Northeastern Housing Justice Coalition. “They should be building housing at price points that students across the income spectrum can afford.”

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But Northeastern officials hail LightView as a major saving because the costs were shouldered by a private company, one of the first such partnerships between local universities and developers. The apartments are proving popular among juniors and seniors; nearly 85 percent of the 825 beds are already leased.

“This novel approach means that the university didn’t have to spend in excess of $100 million to build a new residence hall,” said Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs. “Those funds can now be invested in our core mission of teaching, research, and providing even more financial aid.”

Across the country, universities facing financial constraints and pressure to cater to higher-income students are increasingly turning to these private partnerships. Institutions can also make additional money charging for amenities such as air-conditioning, kitchens, and views of the city.

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Critics argue this stratification of university housing erodes one of the key aspirations of higher education: to create environments where the students live with and learn from peers of diverse backgrounds and incomes and take those lessons after they graduate into wider society. Instead, they argue, universities are building communities of haves and have-nots, mirroring the income divides that have split much of the country in recent years, sparking conflict and fraying common bonds.

“There is reason to think it was an equal experience when the campus housing was much more homogenous,” said Kevin McClure, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, who has studied university partnerships with private developers.

At Tufts University this coming fall, students will no longer pay a flat rate for housing. Instead, the university is offering multiple tiers, ranging from $8,220 to $10,220 for the academic year, depending on whether it’s a single, has a kitchen, is apartment style or newer construction. Tufts officials said the university is following the example of many peers, including Boston University, Babson College, and George Washington University, but students on the Medford campus have been protesting the move.

“It seems to be classist, with rich kids staying in the nicer housing, but the poor kids staying in other housing,” said Mauri Trimmer, 22, a junior anthropology major at Tufts. “We understand the tiered housing is like the market setup, but a university should be trying to create the best possible world.”

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Several area schools are exploring partnerships similar to Northeastern’s deal with American Campus Communities, an Austin, Texas-based student housing developer. ACC built the $153.4 million LightView on Northeastern land that it leases from the school just off campus on Columbus Avenue. Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst are also in discussions with ACC. UMass Boston’s first dormitory, which opened last fall, was built under a public-private partnership.

These partnerships allow universities to provide more housing options without taking on additional debt, McClure said. The buildings tend to be close to campus and offer appealing amenities, he said, but charge slightly higher rents.

And in cases where developers pay the upfront costs and control the building, they can dictate rent levels in order to recoup their investments, McClure said.

Students with less money, McClure added, may be left to choose between more bare-bones residence halls or cheaper off-campus housing farther from campus.

“My fear is what we’re seeing is a steady uptick in pricing for housing,” he said. “It’s kind of an upscaling effect. You start to create pockets of affluence around campus that only certain students can take part in it.”

Housing has long been central to the college experience, with many institutions controlling where and with whom students, particularly freshmen and sophomores, spend their out-of-class time.

Some don’t allow students to choose roommates, to ensure they mix with peers from a variety of perspectives, places, income levels, and races. Some schools reserve floors or entire buildings for students studying the same subjects, to foster networks and support systems that can help them succeed academically.

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“It’s the informal part of learning,” said Bob Gonyea, associate director of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, who has studied student engagement.

But colleges also need housing that will attract and retain students, Gonyea said, and that will make money to help fund education and services.

“You want students to be satisfied, you want to give them choices. On the other hand, you want them to learn and have different experiences,” Gonyea said. “There’s always been a tension.”

Tufts officials said they considered the effect on campus culture and the university’s mission as they debated switching to tiered housing. But the university wants to add 600 more beds and update its existing dormitories to entice students back on campus from the surrounding residential neighborhoods, said James Glaser, Tufts dean for the school of arts and sciences.

The new plan would increase housing costs for some Tufts students anywhere from $285 to $1,485, depending on their living arrangement. Tufts expects that tiered prices, along with new beds on campus, will yield millions of dollars more annually.

The university does plan to increase financial aid so lower-income students can access the pricier units with kitchens and other amenities, Glaser said.

“We do not want to have a stratified campus,” he said “We really do try to make values-based decisions; we try to make financial-based decisions too.”

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The variety of housing, universities say, also gives students more choices. Northeastern’s options range from traditional dorms to pricier, apartment-style suites with kitchens and more privacy. Undergraduate tuition and fees currently run around $51,000, and food plans vary, from as little as $445 for a small block of meals to $7,940 a school year for the top plan. The university also provides $280 million a year in financial aid, mostly based on need.

“We are creating equity,” said Robert Reddy, Northeastern dean of student financial services. “We have housing options that we think are livable, that aren’t substandard that we can offer students. . . . Is it any university’s responsibility in some senses to subsidize to a level they [the students] want to be subsidized at? The business we’re in is to provide access to education and that includes living somewhere, in a standard that is livable.”

LightView is also an effort by Northeastern to steer juniors and seniors away from residential neighborhoods where they contribute to Boston’s ever-higher housing costs.

American Campus Communities consulted with Northeastern on LightView and held focus groups to determine what students wanted, said ACC senior vice president Jason Wills.

Early indications are that ACC succeeded. The building is nearly full, with only about 120 beds still available, all in the lower-cost shared rooms, Wills said.

While the annual cost of LightView is more expensive than campus options, on a monthly basis its rents are comparable and even cheaper than Northeastern’s, Wills said.

“Our goal is to have the communities full,” he said. “I don’t think they’re overpriced . . . We’re very focused on affordability and maintaining occupancy.”

Seth Freedman, a 19-year-old sophomore and chemistry major, said he and his roommates could get lower-cost housing in Mission Hill about a mile from campus. But LightView’s proximity to campus and association with the university, its amenities, as well as ACC’s offer to find someone to rent his room if he decides to do a semester-long internship outside Boston next year, were too appealing.

“It’s going to be the nicest housing that I’ll be living in,” Freedman said. “It’s just a one-year lease, so I decided to splurge.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.