CHF Finances First On-Campus Housing for Northeastern Illinois University

August 10, 2016
By Dawn Rhodes
Chicago Tribune
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For the first time in Northeastern Illinois University’s history, the lead-up to the first day of classes this fall includes a ritual commonplace at other universities: move-in day.

The Northwest Side college plans to open its first on-campus residence hall — a six-story, 110-unit building called The Nest, on Aug. 19.

Building a dorm is a big move for Northeastern, which was the state’s only public, four-year institution that did not have on-site student residences. But other city schools that started out with very few or no dorms have boosted student housing significantly in recent years.

It is a shift away from the template of the urban commuter university, where students pop onto campus for a few hours then leave. While the majority of students at Northeastern and similar schools will still live off campus, administrators say student housing is the linchpin in creating a more comprehensive college experience for all students.

“I think it’s just an evolution of the university,” Northeastern President Sharon Hahs said. “As we have grown and changed, we’ve realized that it’s time.”

The $34.2 million Northeastern dorm can hold 440 residents, including eight live-in staff members. It has 90, four-bedroom/two-bathroom units and 20 two-bedroom/two-bathroom suites. It also includes a public community area on the first floor, game room, exercise room, computer lab, lounge, laundry rooms and study spaces throughout.

Texas-based developer American Campus Communities led the construction and is leasing the land from the university. Its staff will manage and operate the building. Northeastern spent $3.5 million on the project and worked with Alabama-based Collegiate Housing Foundation to secure another $40 million in bonds from the Illinois Finance Authority.

Hahs said about 200 students have signed leases to live at The Nest this year, in line with financial targets. Two-bedroom leases run $8,100 per person for the school year and four-bedroom leases are $10,188. All the rooms are furnished.

Dewyone Childress and Trevon Sykes of suburban Dolton are among the first residents. Both are new to Northeastern. Childress is transferring from South Suburban College and Sykes is an incoming freshman.

Childress, 21, and Sykes, 18, will share a two-bedroom unit and recently toured the building. Furniture and equipment had yet to be moved in, but the two said they were thrilled with what they saw.

“I’ve done the commuter thing before and it wasn’t for me,” said Childress, who plans to study computer science. “I don’t like feeling drained before I get to school. Staying on campus was my No. 1 requirement, something I can afford. I feed off of energy and I feel like there will be a nice energy here.”

Sykes said the dorm helps contribute to the sense of intimacy on campus, along with other components like small class sizes.

“It’s very vibrant and feels homey,” said Sykes, who will major in psychology. “I think it will be easier for me to transition here because it makes me feel like home.”

School leaders say the chorus of students saying they wanted the option to live on campus grew to a crescendo. Administrators added residential life as a goal in its 2008 strategic plan then did a market feasibility study, which showed dorms would boost recruitment and retention.

“It’s to enhance the experience of students who traditionally come to Northeastern but also to invite a new set of students from farther away,” Hahs said.

Columbia College Chicago in the South Loop and the University of Illinois at Chicago on the Near West Side are relatively recent converts from commuter to residential campuses.

Two decades ago, just a few hundred Columbia students lived on campus, according to Mark Kelly, vice president of student success. Now, more than 2,500 students live in five residence halls, and thousands more live nearby, in privately owned student housing.

Kelly said on-campus housing became imperative as Columbia drew more students from farther outside the Chicago area. The addition of those dorms — four in the past 12 years — has transformed the institution.

“Twenty years ago, there were some student organizations, but they were not very vibrant. There was a modest number of student events, but they weren’t well attended,” Kelly said. “There was no clear sense of campus, there was no buzz. Now we have six student galleries, we have student performance spaces every night during the academic year, there’s student-produced events. In a commuter campus, it’s not like that can’t happen, but it’s hard to create.”

UIC began a similar overhaul in the late 1980s, a few years after the medical center and old Circle campuses merged.

“Prior to the residence halls coming on campus, there were literally brick walls and gates around the campus,” said Mark Donovan, UIC vice chancellor for administrative services. “The campus really shut down at about 6 on Friday night and reopened at 6 Monday morning. There might be an occasional concert or some activity in the student center, but it was really a ghost town.”

UIC’s first dorm went up near Harrison and Halsted streets in 1988 and the development culminated in the aughts, with three new dorms opening in six years. The most recent, Stukel Towers, welcomed students in 2007.

Around 20 to 25 percent of all UIC students and 40 percent of freshmen live on the University Village campus now, according to J. Rex Tolliver, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and director of campus auxiliary services.

Like at Columbia, Tolliver said dorms helped spark a social scene at UIC that did not exist before.

“This past year, we had homecoming activities for the first time in more than a decade,” Tolliver said, noting those events drew hundreds of participants. “What UIC seeks to do is to provide a vibrant campus community regardless of the type of student that we have. We want to make sure that those students who are seeking a more residential, traditional campus environment, that they have that and have all the resources there.”

The Nest was in the works for almost all of Hahs’ nine-year tenure as president, but the task of boosting its popularity will fall to her successor. Hahs is retiring at the end of September. Provost Richard J. Helldobler will take over as interim president until April 2018.

Northeastern reached its dorm occupancy goals for the fall but significantly more students will need to move in to make the building financially sustainable in upcoming years, officials said. Longer term, the aim is to house about 10 percent of the student body on campus, Hahs said.

“It is just delightful to be here to cut the ribbon and to welcome our students,” Hahs said. “It’s very special to do this as I’m retiring.”