The market for upscale student living – especially at public universities where student bodies tend to be larger – has boomed in the past 10 years. Private housing developers are now popping up all across the country and expanding rapidly into the Northeast.

Here in Binghamton, high-end housing complexes like 20 Hawley Street, Twin River Commons and University Plaza have raised the standard for everyone. With University Lofts on its way, Downtown Binghamton may even experience a slow but steady transition toward student assimilation.

You heard it here first, this is the beginning of our budding college town.

The Facts

While local housing can cost less than half the price of high-end housing, questions of safety and reliable landlords have proven to be real concerns. Meanwhile, campus charges a minimum of $8,296 for housing and $2,196 for dining. A nicer dorm could move that housing figure upward of $10,140 and even more for break housing.

There will always be a place for both the local and on-campus options, but neither is indicative of the future. Money spent in any of these luxury apartments goes further, providing basic comforts the campus is in short supply of: private bedrooms and baths, kitchens and in the case of Binghamton, overnight security, just to name a few.

Sure, nobody needs these amenities, hence the term luxury student housing. But when you evaluate the services and rates, it becomes less about “excess” and more about cost-benefit analysis. All else equal, why live in a shoebox when you can live in a castle?

But my point is more than a manipulation of the do-it-yourself value equation, which is just that: a manipulation of value. I leave your priorities to you.

In a previous column, I expressed my view that the Greater Binghamton economy will have to reinvent itself around the students. Moreover, along with officials, faculty and administrators, Binghamton University President Harvey Stenger has made it clear that the mission of BU is to become the premier public university of the 21st century. If you accept one or both of these premises, then we need to make 21st-century accommodations readily available to those receiving a 21st-century education. We are competing with some of the best schools in the country, many of which are pushing the envelope in the new landscape of talent acquisition.

But how can the University expand its reach and scope while staying true to the economic feasibility of a public school? The answer – outsourcing.

Universities are in the business of providing an education. Real estate developers, on the other hand, have a core mission that is better suited for fast, cheap and lean facilities. Let comparative advantage do its work. Moreover, capital financing by these real estate investment companies means less debt structuring for the public university, mitigating the burden that other states have fallen victim to in years past.

A concern raised by market analysts of commercial real estate is that the bubble could burst relatively soon. I have my doubts, at least in our city.

The Numbers

The College Board reports that Binghamton University had 12,356 undergraduates last year. The total number of beds on campus (both apartments and non-apartments) is 7,137 as of this semester, leaving 5,219 undergraduates to live off campus. Add another 2,952 graduates, and there are roughly 8,171 students who need a place to stay.

Currently, there are 290 beds at 20 Hawley Street, 371 at Twin River Commons and 710 at University Plaza, all of which are fully leased at the date of publication. When University Lofts hits the scene, there will be another 180 available spots. This accounts for 1,551 beds, a difference of 6,620 students who still need off-campus housing.

As a sampling of 5,708 out of the 15,308 students from last year, I calculated a weighted average of median household incomes for students whose permanent residences were located in densely university-affiliated regions (400 or more students have a permanent address in a particular county or state). For instance, 1,727 students live in Nassau County, which means they were included in the sampling, but Putnam County or Connecticut would not meet the 400 student threshold.

The median household income was $71,856, excluding international students who reside in luxury student housing in large numbers but for whom information was not readily available. While a proper analysis would include measures of more in-depth qualitative and quantitative variables, it seems that more student housing could be sustained, especially when you consider the financial traction of the student body to pay these rates.

The Takeaways

Is it wrong to offer a service people want at a price they can afford? At the end of the day, housing is a business. The students are speaking, and the private developers are listening. That’s the bottom line.

School officials often criticize private housing complexes claiming they degrade the academic, social and moral fabric of the university setting. Some have even argued that college is a time when sacrifice builds character at the expense of comfort.

While this sentiment is endearing, the notion is absolute nonsense. These so-called hedonistic dwellings are living spaces with computer labs, study lounges, presentation rooms and personalized attention from staff – all which cater to students in the same ways our campus sells its own commitment to residential life.

Residential Life staff have begun to catch on to the fact that their facilities do not meet students’ needs and desires. This past May, BU hired third-party vendors to conduct a study on what students want from future dormitories, with survey selection choices resembling the accommodations of luxury apartment communities.

With the NYSUNY Challenge Grant set to increase enrollment by 2,000 by the year 2020, it is not enough to expand just the campus or solely focus on Downtown — the solution lies in cooperation from both. I urge campus officials to keep on track with customer-driven service, and remember that even if you build it, they will not necessarily come. If the students demand it, start building or partner with someone who can.

The rebirth of Binghamton may depend on it.