The Ins and Outs of Public-Private Partnerships: CO Mtn College’s Chip Thomas Says P3s Are Major Priority for Smaller Schools in Need of Housing

DENVER, CO — Dr. Chip Thomas currently serves as the Interim Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, and previously was the Director of Student Life & Housing, at Colorado Mountain College. He has been in the student affairs profession for over twenty five years in a wide variety of roles. Dr. Thomas has been a part of $133M in construction projects with a majority being residence halls of traditional, suite style, and apartment buildings, and also had a hand in designing student and recreation centers. He is currently the President-Elect for AIMHO, the regional housing organization for college and universities that spans eight states and one Canadian providence. Chip will be a featured speaker at CAPRE’s Mountain West Student Housing Forum in August, where he will participate in a session titled “Exploring the Ins and Outs of Public-Private Partnerships Between Academic Institutions and Third-Party Developers.” In anticipation of the Forum, we connected with Chip to learn about why these partnerships are so critical for some colleges.

CAPRE: Thanks for chatting with us today Chip. Tell our readers a bit about what you do and your career in the student housing space.

Thomas: Well as of right now, I’m doing something a little bit different. As of February, I’m the Interim Assistant Dean of Student Affairs at Colorado Mountain College in Rifle, Colorado. I took that opportunity because it was something new and different than housing, but I still have my hands in our housing operations at one of our residential campuses.

Colorado Mountain College is a very small school in size, but we have roughly 18,000 total students that attend our 11 campuses.  At a small institution like CMC, we find that within our positions, we do multiple, different jobs all connected with our students.  My background in higher education, within housing is in strategic planning and the design and construction of new and old buildings – approximately a year and a half ago I was placed on the construction committee to build a recreation center, redesign the student center, and design a new building which is a one-stop shop for departments like student services, financial aid, and admissions. I am also currently working on our residence hall remodel and still do tasks like putting out RFPs for equipment, software, etc..  I do wear multiple different hats on both campuses.

CAPRE: We’re looking forward to hearing you speak about the importance of Public-Private Partnerships at our CAPRE’s Colorado Student Housing Forum. Can you give us a preview? What is so critical about these partnerships?

Thomas: For colleges like ours, we don’t have the funds to put $10 Million USD into a residence hall, so we look at these public private partnerships (P3s) because they’re instrumental to our success. If you look at larger universities within Colorado, they have worked with P3s to build new suites and even entire residence halls to keep their debt ratio low, but also create the necessary facilities for students so that they can grow.

At smaller schools like us, it’s the only way we can afford any kind of housing. It’s a high priority for us.  We are looking at building two different housing buildings at two different campuses.  Working with P3’s can help us through the design, construction, and development processes.  The presence of having them here, being able to work with them, and their willingness to engage, has been instrumental in creating success.  That’s the biggest success and advantage for schools both large and small.  It was something I started working on before I left California State University, Monterey Bay.  We had partnered with, not a well-known contractor, but a group of investors who wanted to help the university build a large residence hall.

CAPRE: What kind of market forces necessitate these partnerships?

Chip Thomas, Interim Assistant Dean of Student Affairs, Colorado Mountain College

Thomas: Part of what we’re running into in Colorado is that construction costs are going through the roof. When I started my second residence hall back in 2005, construction costs were $90-$95 USD per square foot. Last year, we priced a wing and the price was $400 USD a square foot. So to deliver 100 beds, we were looking at $10 Million USD. Back in 2006-2011, I was building residence halls with 200-300 beds for the same price. So the finance piece is where it really hurts the smaller colleges and universities.

In the state of Colorado, specifically on the Front Range, other universities are experience construction cost also as expensive as ours.  So the biggest challenge is, how do you continue to grow your campus?  You have live on requirements for students – especially freshmen, maybe even sophomores to live on campus. So how do you do this without compromising what you believe in and what your values are? You want to support your students who need it, and the money is just the biggest deterrent. You need more beds, but sometimes you can’t do it.

CAPRE: What about the role of students? Where do they come in, in terms of financing these projects?

Thomas: In a residence hall, the students are paying the bonds back through a portion of their room costs—the burden lays on them. It’s not like academic buildings, which in Colorado will be covered by the state.  Having students paying more of the bonds, is an unrealistic to think our student housing costs can be affordable.  So that can tie the hands of a university. We’ve been talking about collaborating with a P3 or private investors locally to build some kind of apartment complex, or a suite-style building to at least give students the option to stay on campus. But it’s all money driven.

CAPRE: What should universities take into account when considering a P3?

Thomas: One advantage of a P3 is the relationship you build with them. They want a great tie-in to a university. Most PS companies want to be involved with areas like student affairs, policies, financial aid, and conduct.  P3s want to establish a relationship and expectations along those lines, which is something you should consider. Is it important to have that kind of relationship? While the students don’t really notice the difference, the relationship between the institution and the P3 can be immense and very helpful to all involved.

CAPRE: Let’s talk more about students. What are they looking for in a residence hall?

Thomas:  What we are seeing is they are looking for simplicity, the “tiny house” potion. They’re not looking for a lot of amenities. They want to stay on campus and get the biggest bang for their buck.  All they want is Wifi, a good bed, and great food. They’re not wanting the pools and the lazy rivers and all that higher price amenities. That brings us back to the P3s. You need to look at what kind of amenities as P3 is going to offer you, and what kind of services they’re going to offer you after the construction. Who’s going to run it, who’s going to manage it, who’s going to deal with facilities?

CAPRE: What lessons have you learned throughout your career in student housing?

Thomas: I’ve been in college housing for 25 years. I’ve worked at large universities with more than 7,000 students on campus. I’ve worked at small institutions with 250 on campus. As you look at housing, it changes throughout the years along with our student population.  I am seeing that it is not about what type of large amenity we can offer, but really, what is the most cost-effective way to do it, and how can we pass on the savings to the students? That’s what our students are really looking at – What is the overall cost of attending college going to cost, and what do they get out of it?  Our incoming students are more about what can I get for as little as I can pay?  We need to be wise on our choice of type of buildings and amenities we offer to make sure we’re providing these students with the right services at the right cost.

CAPRE: Last question. What are you looking forward to about our upcoming Colorado Student Housing Forum?

Thomas: More than anything else, it will be sharing my knowledge. I have over 25 years of experience in housing. I wouldn’t say I’m an expert, but I’ve definitely worked at various sizes of institutions and in different ways, and I look forward to imparting that knowledge with colleagues and peers from across the region.

CAPRE: Got it, and we’re looking forward to it as well!