Community colleges add dorms to boost appeal

Byron Herman rolled out of his dorm bed, yanked on snow pants and a beanie and stumbled across the parking lot to his 8 a.m. math class.

By late morning, the 19-year-old Tehachapi student was on his snowboard, cutting crescent shapes into a mountain slope glistening under ice-blue skies. What was unusual about this scenario last month was that Herman attends not a select academy or elite university, but Cerro Coso Community College, a public two-year institution with a campus in Mammoth Lakes.

His apartment dorm is the latest in a new wave of student housing at community colleges, as the commuter culture at such schools gives way to a more traditional college experience.


Experts say rising university tuitions are pushing more traditional college-age students into two-year schools, and community colleges are also aggressively recruiting athletes and international students, who often prefer or need on-campus housing.

“We do think it’s a trend for more community colleges to provide residential housing for students,” said Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Assn. of Community Colleges in Washington, D.C.

It’s a trend

Community college dorms are springing up in Texas, Minnesota, Florida and Washington state, according to the association. But California would appear to be particularly fertile ground, with both California State University and the University of California shrinking freshman enrollment for the fall.

Nearly 2.8 million students attend California’s 110 community colleges, about a quarter of all two-year college students in the nation.

A little-known secret is that 11 California community colleges already have dorms.

Built decades ago for students from remote parts of the state, some of the older dorms are little more than barracks. Others have been modernized, including those at Sierra College in Rocklin, northeast of Sacramento, drawing students from as far as Japan and Canada with special features that include a meal card honored at local restaurants.

In Santa Barbara, landlord David Sullins turned four single-family homes into shared housing for students from nearby City College. Although not exactly dorms, the houses, with such perks as maid service, helped persuade parents like New Hampshire teacher Catherine Smith to send their children across the country.

“For him, it is a major adventure,” Smith said of her son, Tyler, 19. “He told me, ‘Mom, I’m making memories.’ ”

Many of the new student housing projects use no public money. South Gateway Student Apartments, billed as the first new community college housing to open in California in two decades, were built on the edge of Cerro Coso’s Mammoth campus for $8.5 million by the Mammoth Lakes Foundation.

Forget bad memories of cinder-block construction and metal bunk beds. These dorms are deluxe, with prices to match: $750 a month to share, $900 for a single, which doesn’t include meals (students can use their financial aid for rent, but most get help from their parents).

Outside, the structure resembles a mountain resort, half-clad in a locally quarried stone that gives off a mellow apricot-colored glow.

Inside, a glassed-in fireplace is kitty-corner from a giant flat-screen TV. One recent evening, students sprawled across a couch, eating turkey soup and laughing uproariously at a movie.

Other students dawdled at the pool, shuffleboard court and ping-pong tables, or lifted weights in the state-of-the-art gym off the gaming area. Through the gym’s plate-glass windows sits a courtyard with a gas barbecue and fire pit, and beyond, stunning views of the snow-draped Sherwin Mountains, and the pinons and Jeffrey pines of Inyo National Forest.

Each unit has its own bathroom, full-size beds and refrigerator, a ceramic stove-top and in the hall, a snowboard locker (although teenagers being teenagers, ski equipment was strewn along the hallway one recent evening).

Opened in August, the 59-student residence hall is about 70% full, with little marketing beyond the website, mailers and college fairs, Mammoth Foundation President Evan Russell said.

The 45 residents mostly are male -- the guys-to-girls ratio is about 6:1 -- and many are into extreme sports.

Herman, of Tehachapi, for example, tries to snowboard every day he can but also roller-blades, skateboards, stunt-rides his BMX bike, hikes, rock-climbs, fishes and camps, while studying and working, although he was recently laid off. And still, his motto seems to be: What’s next?

About 10 p.m. one evening, Steve Miller, 19, also from Tehachapi, comes knocking: “Dude, I’m bored, let’s go do something.”

The two young men sally forth into the pitch-black darkness to dig a quarter-pipe snowboard ramp out of a snowbank. “When I’m cruising around, I can have a sweet little spot to ride,” Herman explained later.

At daybreak, Miller hoists his bike into his truck for the 45-minute drive to the town of Bishop, where the two students regularly practice extreme BMX-ing at a skate park. Herman was going to join him when he came off the mountain but let himself be talked into a free lunch, followed by a soak in a natural hot springs nearby.

Herman says his knees often ache from overuse, but he is addicted to the action. “There’s too much fun stuff to do,” he says.

Sharon Carroll, 19, of east San Diego County, said that if she had had to fight the traffic and large class sizes of an urban community college, “I would have been sick of school already. I figured out a lot from being here. It made me want to go to a four-year college.”

The swanky digs don’t hurt, the students said. “The view is sick from here,” said E.J. Vitta, 19, of Chino Hills, who likes to look at the mountain through a telescope from his room.

“I adore the dorms,” said Matt Carothers, 19, who grew up in the Mammoth area. “I looked at a lot of them, and most are just a closet with beds.”

Gender imbalance

But there are a few complaints, among them the school’s lack of females and its interactive TV courses. Cerro Coso’s Mammoth operation is tiny, only 300 students, and about 20% of the courses are taught via television feeds, with instructors rotating between Mammoth and sister campuses in Bishop and Ridgecrest.

The economic slide has hit some students hard; some were laid off from jobs on the mountain and had to go home, friends said.

In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, a community college president from Illinois attacked the notion of such colleges having dorms, saying they breed pot-smoking and general folderol.

“Community colleges are meant to be in the community. Why would you need to live in a dorm?” Spoon River College President Robert Ritschel, who heads four two-year schools in west-central Illinois, said in a phone interview.

But insulated from the pressures of family and the city, some students say they are succeeding in school for the first time.

“In town, kids try to make you do stuff you don’t want to do,” said Herman. “I’d be listening to a bunch of drama.”

“I’m having more fun than I had in my whole life,” Carroll said.