STILLWATER — Take a walk around Aspen Heights, a new 792-bed student housing development near Oklahoma State University, and you might think you had wandered into a planned resort for twentysomethings.
The development, set to open Saturday, includes an on-site movie theater, a 24-hour gym and a volleyball court. After class, students can study in the clubhouse, or relax by a resort-style pool.
The community is among the latest in a wave of luxury student housing developments that have sprung up in college towns nationwide, seeking to capitalize on booming college enrollment and students demanding amenities they can't find in the dorms.
Generally, these communities are only open to students and offer features that aren't found in a standard apartment complex. In many cases, landlords allow each student living in a house or apartment to sign an individual lease, meaning roommates aren't liable if one of the tenants misses a rent payment.
With the opening of the Stillwater community, Austin-based Aspen Heights now owns housing developments in nine college towns in the United States, including Columbia, Mo.; Auburn, Ala.; and San Antonio, near the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Aspen Heights spokesman Stuart Watkins said college towns offer an attractive market for developers because of the steady stream of students who flood into town every fall.
Universities nationwide are seeing booming enrollment growth. OSU posted a record 25,544 students last year for its Stillwater and Tulsa campuses combined. More students means more potential renters for companies such as Aspen Heights, Watkins said.
Aside from the lavish amenities they offer, student housing communities are an attractive option for older students just because they aren't on campus, said Michael Kollmorgen, an OSU senior.
Kollmorgen, 23, had planned to move into Aspen Heights on Saturday before being told his house wouldn't be ready for a few weeks. Until then, Kollmorgen and his roommates are staying in another Stillwater apartment complex.
Kollmorgen lived on campus during his freshman and sophomore years, but he and four friends decided to move off campus last year.
They lived in a rental house in south Stillwater last year, but decided to move to Aspen Heights this year.
Living on campus was convenient, he said, but it didn't offer students a chance to get away from school after class. There were rules to follow and resident advisers checking in from time to time. To a certain extent, moving off campus meant being out from under the university's control, he said.
“We just wanted a place of our own,” Kollmorgen said.
That interest in privacy has driven an increase in demand for luxury student housing, said Mike Buhl, a broker with Commercial Realty Resources Co. in Norman.
Most of the student housing developments being built today offer private bedrooms and bathrooms for each student. That's an attractive option for college students, many of whom grew up with their own bedroom and bathroom, he said.
Investing in student housing could be a more stable proposition for developers, Buhl said. In conventional apartment complexes, landlords rely on the tenant's credit. But with student housing, parents generally cosign the lease, meaning landlords have added protection if a student doesn't pay rent.
Although the University of Oklahoma's on-campus housing mostly stays full, the university views off-campus student housing developments as its competition, said OU Housing and Food Service Director Dave Annis.
When students move off campus, they cut themselves off from part of the university community, Annis said. The university plans events and programs that focus on enhancing student experiences, he said, and students who live off campus generally don't participate.
Over the past few years, Annis said, he's seen students place a growing premium on campus housing and dining. Many students who are used to having their own bedrooms and bathrooms come to campus and find student housing isn't configured to meet those demands.
In some cases, Annis said, he's seen prospective students consider campus housing even more strongly than degree programs when making a decision about where to go to college.
“In a way, it's a little bit scary,” Annis said. “They're looking for what they're used to.”