In my office on the upper campus of a university in a not-so-far-away galaxy, I have a Darth Vader action figure sitting on top of my bookshelf (still in the packaging of course!) My current supervisor gave this to me in December 2005 as a “tongue-in-cheek” welcome for making the transition from working on-campus to now working for a national, ”for-profit” student housing development and management company. Please understand the context: I was a full-time, unionized area coordinator at a public university for five years suddenly making the leap to the proverbial Residence Life equivalent of the “Dark Side.” And yes, I was one of those folks holding the flag rallying with my colleagues to prevent these Stormtroopers from outsourcing our jobs and changing the Force of good student affairs practices!
Five years later, and having been promoted to another university location with a larger student community, I now have a different, and potentially more objective, perspective. Having a total of 18 years of experience in all sectors of higher education across the country, I’d like to invite you to “walk a mile in my shoes” as I debunk 5 myths about privatized student housing.
MYTH #1: Privatized housing doesn’t care about students. This was one of my biggest concerns regarding the private management of student housing. What I came to find out is that this couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only do they care, but are always looking to improve their housing communities to meet the ever-growing demands of student and their parents. I wouldn’t be working for and with people who didn’t truly care about students. Additionally, I am confident in saying that the company I work for is especially concerned about student safety and security and does its best to maintain an environment that’s conducive for student learning. I can’t though, however, say the same for local negligent landlords that seem to be rife in every campus town’s community. Plus I’m given the freedom to create practically any residence life programming initiatives that I want in order to better serve my students.
MYTH #2: Privatized housing is only looking to make a buck. While every company (and university) has to worry about the bottom line, it is possible to create profits while also expanding and maintaining a great product and great service. And nowadays, students and parents especially vote with their feet! If they aren’t getting the most out of their campus and / or housing experience, they’ll simply pick up and leave. And while we want to provide a comfortable living environment with worthwhile amenities, we still care about their well-being and personal development. This is a win-win for everyone!
MYTH #3: Privatized housing is looking to take jobs. When I came to personally know the executives of my company, I found that they weren’t sitting in a small dimly lit room rubbing their hands together and twirling their moustaches conspiring to take jobs away from student affairs professionals. In actuality, they are actually trying to expand the field to include new people. (I am a living example of that!) Is it true that on-campus personnel could have managed a newly constructed, off-campus university-affiliated housing community thereby not creating a new job within the housing department? Of course. But with the leaps and bounds colleges and universities (particularly public ones) have to go through now to get any new housing constructed given the economy is nothing short of a miracle so they all but have to use this option (and may be required to use outside management due to financial-related requirements). And in many cases, campus personnel do indeed continue to manage their housing that is renovated or newly constructedby a third-party vendor.
MYTH #4: Privatized housing personnel are not qualified. I’m the same guy that I was when I on the university payroll, and now have even been able to expand my skill set and professional experience. To be honest, the reason why I left is because there wasn’t an opportunity to be able to supervise full-time professional staffers and manage and develop large department/division-sized budgets. I’m proud to say that I have that skill set under my belt now. I have many colleagues in the privatized housing arena who are higher education and student affairs experts with degrees in college student personnel, counseling education, and higher education administration. They also actively participate in ACPA and NASPA activities and are well in-tune with the latest news and national trends regarding student housing and development.
MYTH #5: Once you go to the Dark Side, you don’t come back! Philosophically, for me, there is no dark side. The campus I serve has embraced me as one of their own: I attend department and division meetings, collaborate with faculty and staff on living-learning opportunities, help to train campus community advisors & student leaders, and am a general resource for the campus. So while the Darth Vader on my bookshelf was a token of a light-hearted joke, I use it as a symbol to remember to stay true to my profession, create bridges for student development opportunities, and serve as a role model for innovative and research-based student affairs practices no matter who I work for.
Scott M. Helfrich is the director of upper campus housing with Allen & O’Hara Education Services, Inc. at California University of Pennsylvania, co-owner of Student Life Consultants, and the creator of http://www.studentlifeguru.com.