UC Davis upgrades dorms as it courts national, international students

Living in a dorm once meant sacrificing comfort.

Not anymore at UC Davis. The public university has been on a building spree, tearing down old units and erecting modern, upscale dorms in their place.

The trend, college experts say, is part of a push by universities nationwide to attract not only the best and brightest, but also the well-heeled.

Two years ago, Chancellor Linda P.B. Katehi laid out an ambitious plan that would dramatically increase the number of out-of-state students on campus. The reason: Students from outside California, whether from other states or other countries, pay almost three times as much in tuition.

But to get those premium-price students, you have to offer them a little more for their money.

“If you are paying more, you want more,” said Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed, an online publication focused on college topics. “These days, many students have high expectations about their living spaces.”

The new dorms boast spacious study lounges with flat-screen TVs and rooms with large wardrobes. Students also get multiple bathrooms on each floor for increased privacy, complete with seven-day custodial services.

“It’s like a hotel, except with all your friends,” said Erin Lucore, 18, a freshman microbiology major who lives in Campbell Hall, a dorm that opened in 2010.

Nearby, construction crews were busy last week completing work on the $88 million Tercero North project, which will house 1,200 students when it opens in September 2014. The project includes a state-of-the-art 250-seat lecture hall that will be used for classes, programs and movie nights.

UC Davis has been on a building binge for the past decade, spending about $150 million on new dorms in one residential area alone.

“It’s all about the student experience. All of our rooms are top-notch,” said Branden Petitt, director of student development at the university’s housing department.

With that in mind, the school recently upgraded the 16,000-square-foot Cuarto Dining Commons at a cost of $7.9 million. The dining hall features made-to-order items, ice cream from Gunther’s creamery and even organic milk. Officials tout it as a “dynamic, attractive and sustainable facility.”

Construction has been financed by profits generated from student rents, according to Ramona Hernandez, director of business and financial services for student housing.

Under Katehi’s ambitious enrollment plan, dubbed the 2020 Initiative, UC Davis would add 5,000 new undergraduates by 2020, including “substantial increases in national and international students.” Officials hope the extra revenue will offset cuts in state funding.

The number of international students at UCD already has swelled. In 2011-12, there were 794 students from other countries at the campus. In 2012-13, there were 1,097. Final attendance figures are not yet available for the 2013-14 school year, but administrators said they accepted 50.6 percent more international students.

UC Davis and other public universities face stiff competition for foreign students, though, because their costs are comparable to private institutions. The estimated cost – including tuition and living expenses – of attending UC Davis for the 2013-14 school year is $55,951 for non-Californians. At the University of Southern California, the total cost is $62,245.

“There’s definitely competition,” said Bob Morse, director of data research at U.S. News and World Report, who is in charge of compiling the publication’s annual best-colleges ranking. “Schools are trying to attract international students who pay the full sticker price.”

USC hosts the largest foreign student population in the country, with 9,269 enrolled in 2011-12, according to the Institute of International Education.

“USC has been in the business of seeking international students for a long time,” Morse said. “Whereas the UC system schools were once very reluctant to follow this policy, they are now playing catch-up.”

Qun Xia is a UC Davis freshman from Yantai in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong. The softspoken 19-year-old said she chose the university because of its quaint, small-town environment, but also for the new dorms.

“I read reviews about the school’s student life, dorms and food before I enrolled,” Xia said in Mandarin.

As she spoke, Xia was surrounded by half a dozen friends, all from China. Some played computer games, while others studied for exams.

Chinese students have become especially sought after by American universities. Xia represents the country’s emerging middle class – her father is a manager for a state-owned enterprise and her mother is a nurse. Together, they are footing the bill for Xia’s $55,951-a-year education, 26 times the annual average income for a family in China.

“There is a love affair on both sides. American colleges are happy to have Chinese students, and there is great demand from China,” Morse said.

Nearly 200,000 Chinese students enrolled in American colleges in 2012, a surge of 23 percent from the year prior.

Simon Lu, a freshman from Guangdong in southern China, said the “plethora of dining options” was what drew him to UC Davis.

“There’s so much food,” he said, chuckling, “and it’s very healthy, too.”