NC State’s Barry Olson Talks the State of the Student Housing Market in Raleigh: Students Have Many Options, But Are There Too Many?

RALEIGH, NC — Dr. Barry Olson oversees University Housing, including Living and Learning Initiatives and the full suite of Business Administration units, at North Carolina State University. He has been a student affairs professional practitioner for over 22 years.  At CAPRE’s Carolinas Student Housing Forum held at North Carolina State, Olson participated in a Keynote Interview, “Up-Close with North Carolina State University” moderated by Mike Porritt, Vice President for Advisory Services at The Scion Group LLC, about the state of affairs for student renters in Raleigh.

Barry Olson, NC State University

“What we’re going to talk about today is some of the things that are going on at NC State and in the Carolinas in particular,” began Porritt. “My background is from campuses. My last role was Director of University Housing at McGill University in Montréal. And I’ve been working with Scion Advisory for the last four years. We do campus advising for a lot of stuff and work with some private developers sometimes as well. So let’s get started. Barry, how would you describe the state of student housing in the Raleigh area, for students, on campus and off campus?”

“I’d say that, for us, here in Raleigh, it’s great for our students. Our students have a lot of opportunity,” replied Olson, before diving deep. “Here’s a layout of NC State. We’re a land grant institution. We have about 35,000 students. We house about 10,000 of those on campus. So our primary market – about half of that market – are freshmen. We instituted a freshman requirement two years ago in 2017, so we capture about 98% or 98 and a half of that student group. And that’s about five thousand students. Then when we moved to that [model], we found we were displacing more of our upper class students.”

However, according to Olson, there were some consequences. “Our sophomores, that batch of students – and we would yield about 65% of them, who would come back – we didn’t have enough beds,” he shared. “Because we also have a lot more apartment units, which go more towards juniors and seniors right now. But ultimately, whenever you make a shift toward requiring one market or another to stay, someone else has to be displaced. So we take it really seriously that our job is to impact the student experience — and to make our students feel connected to the institution. We do that through residential activities – through high-impact practices. Basically that’s anything where we’re able to connect the think and the do. Our motto is to think and do.”

For example, some students engage in alternative spring breaks, or Living and Learning Villages. “So we like to do all of those pieces, which we like to say are value-add. If you live on campus, you have a tighter connection to those experiences. We have residential staff, Resident Assistant, full-time master’s level staff, and full-time doctoral level staff. So we’ve got the people in place to make the experience strong,” he surmized, before transitioning into a broader market-level discussion.

“The market around us is great, but I think that what we’re seeing a lot of is big complexes building up, growing up out of the ground, that are right next to campus,” Olson divulged. “And so a new place opens and the students kind of migrate over to that place, because it’s got the newer amenities. Like, oh you’ve got granite? Well we don’t have granite over there. Like that really should drive your decision. We find that our students say they like amenities – fancy amenities – but they get those amenities on campus already. So we don’t overbuild. We’re not going to build a lazy river, and we’re not going to build a tanning room. And by the way a tanning room isn’t healthy, so please stop building them!”

After a few chuckles, Olson continued. “But also, what’s at the core of the student experience?” he rhetorically asked the gathering. “For us, we were talking a lot about how our students are very price sensitive right now. The total cost of education continues to rise. And housing is a piece of that. For us, our typical on-campus student, for that nine and a half month period, pays in the neighborhood of six thousand bucks. About three grand per semester. And we like to keep it in that zone. We recognize that our prices have to go up because staff have to get paid, and all of those pieces, but our tuition and fees this year were held flat. The State of North Carolina has put a lot of pressure on us to keep our fees flat or reduce them. We don’t typically reduce fees. But tuition is flat. And any student who came in last year will pay the same amount of money all four years for tuition.”

In other words, the math just keeps getting harder. “If we could lock our students into something where this is the rent they’d pay for the next four years, we would do it. It’s just that it’s cumbersome,” he stressed. “We know what our freshman population is and we are continuing to work primarily with them. My fear is that there is too much gong on and their fear is that we’re going to clamp on. There are always people that ask us – on the university side – to maybe consider a sophomore requirement. We’re not there and we don’t believe we’re going to be there anytime soon. We want to do our job well and to do that we have to focus on one population primarily. And then, we’ll go to, how do we try to enhance our housing?”