Why investing in student housing matters


For millions of college students, the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way they experience campus life. Although fall 2021 saw many colleges and universities welcoming students back into residence halls, most of them returned to lower occupancy rates within their dorms. Like many periods of disruption in the past, this challenge is paving the way for opportunities for those who can see it. Investment in student housing developments is one of these opportunities.

If you invest in or develop real estate in the built environment, you might want to take a closer look at off-campus collegiate housing for your next venture. Due to the shifts in student behavior and the way universities are being managed, investing in student housing may be lucrative in 2022 and beyond.

Continue reading to learn more about the current state of student housing investment, new trends, benefits, and tips for investing in off-campus properties.

In this post, we’ll cover:


The current state of student housing investment

When the world as we know it changed in March 2020, college students were sent home and forced to attend classes online. On many college campuses, practicing social distancing is near impossible. From dining halls to shower stalls, numerous parts of campus life depend on students sharing spaces and being close to each other.

“It seems that universities will likely be lowering (housing) capacity for a number of years from here on out and change the way they have been housing students,” J. Ryan Lang told Multi-Housing News. Lang is the vice-chairman and head of Newmark Knight Frank’s Student Housing division. Furthermore, he saw on-campus housing lower its capacity by more than 70 percent at universities across the country.

At many colleges, on-campus dorms have been reserved for first-year students as campuses reopened in fall 2021. Rooms that were initially meant for double, triple, and sometimes quadruple occupancy were transformed into singles to accommodate social distancing. This means that returning students had to, at large, turn to off-campus housing.

In fact, despite the global pandemic, interest in investing in off-campus student housing stayed constant. According to Real Capital Analytics, investors spent $5.7 billion to buy student housing properties over the 12 months that ended in the first quarter of 2021. Of that, a whopping $4.3 billion was from the fourth quarter of 2020. The figure was just a 9% decrease from the year before.


Other considerations

A recent National Multi-Housing Council survey had surprising findings regarding the current state of student housing investment across the country.

Summary of key findings from the 2021 NMHC Student Housing income and Expense Survey:

  • Campus-adjacent and high-rise properties saw higher net rental income
  • Mid-Atlantic and small properties reported lower vacancy costs, despite the pandemic
  • Concessions were most increased in Southeast and garden-style properties
  • Operating expenses were lowest in newer properties

Overall, evidence shows that students want to live near campus, even amid uncertainties caused by the pandemic. And amenity-rich student housing properties located next to campus at top-tier universities experience the most substantial demand and pre-leasing activities. These are schools with more than 20,000 full-time students and have Division I athletic programs.


 Read about how The Clubhouse student housing uses ButterflyMX


New trends in student housing

Overall, despite the challenges and uncertainties of 2020, the 2021-2022 academic year is seeing a solid student housing sector in many university markets. Especially after months of quarantining with their families, college students jumped at the opportunity to move out and live in a “college setting,” even if classes were held online.

Here are some new trends that emerged in the student housing market:


Students wanted to live near campus even though classes were held online.


Increased international student enrollment

According to New York Times data, American consulates approved 117,000 F-1 student visas for fall 2021, which is 90 percent of 2019 levels. And those international students were more likely to seek out off-campus housing than ever before. This is primarily due to uncertainty about travel restrictions both their home countries and the US could impose if coronavirus cases were to spike up again. Many on-campus dorms force students to vacate during school breaks, which leaves international students no choice but to fly back home or find alternative accommodations.

With off-campus housing, students have more flexibility with their leases and the option to stay in place over extended school breaks. These are features that are even more attractive to international students than ever before.


Affordable housing with high-tech amenities

Just like multifamily residents, student-residents desire amenities that make their daily lives easier. Students are notorious for being on a tight budget, so skip the bells and whistles and think of practical amenities. High-tech amenities not only simplify apartment living for students but also lower the property’s operating costs. In turn, you can charge students lower rent, which increases occupancy rates.

Tech-forward amenities include keyless access control, smart building technology, and package rooms. Today’s students do almost everything on their phones — even write entire term papers! Implementing smartphone-based entry systems will streamline property access and visitor management for your student tenants, who are often on the go.


Lower on-campus housing capacities driving off-campus demand

As mentioned beforehand, many on-campus residences have limited their occupancies to promote social distancing practices. Even more, college enrollment continues to increase year after year, and colleges don’t have enough beds to accommodate all students. Both these factors increase demand for off-campus housing.

Today’s students crave a sense of certainty from wherever they can get it, especially during unprecedented times. With the global pandemic still very much present, no one can know for sure what the foreseeable future holds. However, off-campus housing extends some semblance of certainty for students, unlike on-campus dorms that can close down without fair warning.


Preference for housing in mixed-use buildings

College students are all about the luxury of convenience. They’re swamped juggling coursework, social life, and often internships or even jobs. So, they crave having all their essentials within a short distance. What’s better than having bare necessities — such as convenience and grocery stores, cafes, and laundromats — in the same building they live in?

Developing student housing within a mixed-use building is the best way to go. Mixed-use buildings combine multi-resident housing, such as student housing, with commercial spaces. Since young people are very conscious about sustainability and climate change, they forgo having cars on or near campus. And that’s more of a reason to build a multi-use development that houses students and provides all the amenities they’d ever need. You’ll be doing your part in going green while providing student tenants with maximum convenience.


Greater focus on mental and physical well-being

Currently, Gen Z dominates the college student population. And they’re more likely to graduate high school and enroll in college than millennials and Gen Xers did. Furthermore, Gen Zers are the most open about their mental health than any previous generation. Stigma about using mental health services has lessened, making it easier for Gen Z to seek help when they feel they have a mental health problem that can be treated.

As such, Gen Z wants housing that fosters a safe space and promotes holistic wellness. You can achieve this by painting the walls soothing colors, placing comfortable and ergonomic furniture, and focusing on wellness-oriented community amenities.


4 benefits of investing in student housing

Student housing real estate investments offer a steady stream of benefits — and investing in student housing is becoming more and more lucrative.

Here are the top four benefits of investing in student housing:

  1. Constant demand: Unlike commercial properties — and even some residential accommodations — you’re nearly guaranteed that you’ll have a return on your investment in student housing. Today, demands for undergraduate and graduate degrees are at an all-time high. So, as long as people are going to college, there will be demand for student housing,
  2. Steady, organizational lease renewals: At prominent universities with strong bases for student organizations, such as sports teams or fraternities and sororities, it’s common that the organization itself leases the housing. This means that student clubs allocate specific percentages of their operating budgets strictly to house organization members. And although seniors indeed graduate, there’ll always be first-year and underclassmen students who fill up vacancies.
  3. Low maintenance/refurbishment costs: One of the many good things about having student tenants is low expectations. As long as their essentials are covered, they’ll take apartments in any condition. This means that you don’t need to budget for expensive refurbishment or home improvements for your buy-to-let student property.
  4. Co-signers to guarantee rent payment: Since college students barely have credit histories, student housing properties require renters to have co-signers on their leases. Co-signers can be parents, guardians, or student club advisors. So, you’ll have a higher likelihood that rent will be paid.


There will be demand for student housing as long as students are going to college.


5 tips for student housing developers

As a real estate investor, you should add student housing investments to your portfolio. And if you’re a property developer searching for a new project, consider a student development.

Consider these five tips for your next student housing development project:

  1. Invest in a package delivery system
  2. Ensure the building is eco-friendly
  3. Implement a universal design
  4. Consider walkability when zoning
  5. Enable smart living with proptech


1. Invest in a package delivery system

Whether it’s books or household supplies, students rely heavily on online shopping to get their essentials. Even before the pandemic, both on- and off-campus housing saw an uptick in package deliveries. So, the need for effective package delivery and management systems in student housing is more critical than ever before. That’s why you should invest in proptech that simplifies deliveries.

When constructing a student housing building, designate a room that property managers can set up as a package room. In addition, enabling infrastructure to facilitate property access for couriers can further streamline all kinds of deliveries.


Watch how ButterflyMX’s package room works:


2. Ensure the building is eco-friendly

Younger generations are experiencing the devastating effects of climate change first-hand. As such, they’re more likely to be environmentally conscious than their predecessors. So, to attract student renters, you must incorporate eco-friendly elements into the building.

This means harnessing renewable energy and equipping the building with smart technology that conserves energy. For example, consider installing solar panels for the building’s primary energy source and placing motion-sensor lights to minimize electricity use. Making the building as environmentally friendly as possible will save money and attract generations of college students to come.


3. Implement a universal design

Students’ needs and wants will undoubtedly change over the years. So, you want student housing properties to have universal designs to accommodate future generations easily. As a property investor, you know that it costs money and time to reconstruct and redevelop properties.

However, buildings with universal designs are easily adaptable and can be repurposed. So, future owners can easily repurpose the building without demolishing and rebuilding the property entirely when the building reaches the end of its useful life.


4. Consider walkability when zoning

Walkability and accessibility to public transportation are essential when deciding where to build student housing. Often, students opt not to bring cars to campus — especially in cities. College students don’t want to bear the responsibility of owning and maintaining cars while in school. In fact, the number of teenagers who obtain driver’s licenses has nearly halved since 1984.

So, for college students and many city dwellers, walkability is an amenity in itself. Especially for student residents, having all their essential needs within a short walkable distance can significantly improve their quality of life.


5. Enable smart living with proptech

Today’s college students grew up with technology, and each generation after them will be even more connected to technology than their predecessors. For them, smart proptech solutions are an expectation, not a perk.

As you’re developing your student housing property, keep in mind future property owners and managers will want to add proptech amenities to attract these younger renters. So, include infrastructure that can easily accommodate hundreds (maybe even thousands) of IoT-powered devices, such as smart locks, automatic thermostats, and amenity space reservation systems.


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Sarah Kim

Based in New York City, I love exploring the real estate industry and explaining how property technology can improve people’s lives.

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