I am a higher education professional with over 20 years of full-time university student affairs experience. I earned a doctorate (D.Ed.) in higher education from Penn State University and am the Principal Owner of Helfrich Advisory Services, LLC.
Now more than ever, the ability to have honest and impactful conversations is a critical skill everyone needs to have. We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations that Matter by Celeste Headlee is an excellent book for those looking to improve their conversation and listening skills while fostering relationships and solving problems through the process. In the book she shares personal stories of success and failure along with lessons learned from others about the importance of being able to communicate effectively through conversation. Celeste is currently the host of a daily news program on Georgia Public Broadcasting and shares from her wealth of experience interviewing people on the radio.
The book is divided into two sections: the first part illustrates a contextual basis for the problems we often encounter by having poor conversational (and listening) skills while the second part focuses on direct solutions and sound advice:
1. Conversation is a Survival Skill
2. Communication and Conversation are Not the Same
3. You Can’t Outsmart a Bad Conversation
4. Set the Stage
5. Some Conversations are Harder than Others
6. Be There or Go Elsewhere
7. It’s Not the Same!
8. Get Off the Soapbox
9. Keep it Short
10. No Repeats
11. That’s a Great Question
12. You Can’t Know Everything
13. Stay Out of the Weeds
14. Travel Together
16. Sometimes We Shouldn’t Talk
While I’m a practicing scholar at heart and love research, I do, however, appreciate books that are practical, a quick read, and can be easily applied for the professional development of both staff and students. This is definitely one of those books. With the introduction, the book is 252 pages of content and can be easily read over the course of three or four sittings. This book would serve as an excellent resource for the basis of a student programming series (i.e., leadership, career services, etc.), a great “Lunch and Learn” or professional development discussion for staff meetings, and to potentially frame supervisory one-on-ones among your team’s managers and employees. I highly recommend it to you and encourage you to share how you have used the book in your work in the comments below.
In January 2018, I served as a faculty member for the ACUHO-I Senior Housing Officer (SHO) Institute in Pittsburgh, PA. I presented on student housing public private partnerships (P3) with a colleague from Brailsford & Dunlavey. I shared that I myself worked for over 10 years for a student housing industry firm at two public university P3 communities in order to gain much needed experience in budgeting, staff supervision, and capital project management. I was approached by a handful of the institute attendees who stated that they were being recruited to work for various privatized housing firms and wanted my perspective and some advice. The following information should prove insightful if you are debating a potential opportunity to work for a privatized, student housing firm.
PRIVATE MANAGEMENT COMPANIES – There are multiple student housing industry firms in the United States that develop, construct, own and / or manage college housing. Some of these firms are privately-owned while others are a public corporation whose shares are publicly-traded on the stock market. Some firms may own and manage private housing in your local off-campus community while others may directly own and / or operate student housing in a P3 relationship on (or near) a college campus. Like any organization, these firms have different histories, goals, priorities, leadership styles, and company cultures. *Note: Do not confuse privately-owned student housing communities near your campus with P3’s. There needs to be a direct public-private financial arrangement between the university and the private firm in order for it to be considered a P3. REIT (i.e., real estate investment trust) firms may own a property off-campus that is completely independent of your university.
ORGANIZATIONAL & STAFFING STRUCTURE – Each housing community (i.e., “property”) has its own staff, which typically includes a community manager, leasing and marketing staff, student account / financial staff, maintenance staff, and student staff. Student housing properties can be small or relatively large depending upon the college or university it serves. I managed two different, campus-affiliated apartment communities of 407 and 770 beds respectively, but I worked with colleagues who managed properties of 1,000+ beds. It should go without saying that the larger properties have a larger staff infrastructure.
The community manager (CM) is in charge of the property and supervises all of the staff. In some cases, the CM and / or maintenance manager (MM) may live on the property. In turn, a regional manager (RM) supervises a portfolio of properties and is the supervisor for those respective CM’s at those properties. The RM is typically a corporate office-based employee who is charged with staying in regular contact with their properties and visit at least once every quarter to make sure that everything is copacetic operationally. They will also interact with campus stakeholders if there is a P3 arrangement.
P3 properties that are operated by a private management company are financially self-supported in that the operational and capital costs come exclusively from the property’s bed revenue and reserves. The management company has a corporate office and supports all of its properties through various departments, such as accounting, human resources, marketing, and purchasing.
It is important to understand that a property CM is NOT the equivalent of a resident hall director or area coordinator. A CM is in charge of all aspects of property operations, including, but not limited to, leasing, rent collections, budget creation, vendor and utility payments, monthly income statement reviews, capital project management, and crisis response. Essentially, they would be the equivalent of a senior housing officer at a very small college. Some properties, however, do have a subordinate resident director that helps with student programming and CA / RA supervision.
REAL ESTATE VS. RESIDENCE LIFE – There is a very distinct difference between working for a student housing management firm and for a college or university residence life department. For a housing firm, the “bottom line” is paramount, particularly if it is publicly-traded with investors involved. At the end of the day, it is a business. In that regard, student learning outcomes, residential curricula, and student affairs are generally not a part of the day-to-day discussion. Operations mostly mirror what multifamily housing real estate management would look like in the rental apartment and townhouse market within the general community.
The vast majority of my community manager colleagues nationally did not have a background in higher education or student affairs and could not tell you what ACPA, ACUHO-I, and NASPA are nor the importance and applicability of student development research into their work. In some cases, there can be community managers who do not have a college education. This is not a criticism, this is simply an industry reality. Additionally, there is a semblance of programming, but overall it is not tied to student learning outcomes or assessment efforts. Programming is essentially a marketing tactic in order to entice students to renew their leases at the property for the following year.
COMPENSATION – It is crucial to understand and consider the different compensation structure that comes with working for a privatized student housing firm. Community managers will receive a base salary and typically the potential for a bonus.
Bonus Structure: Bonus programs can vary from firm to firm and can also differ if there is a P3 arrangement with a college or university. Community managers are normally paid quarterly incentives based upon predetermined objectives tied to revenue, expenses, and leasing efforts. While this may seem alien to a residence life professional, financially incentivizing performance is a standard practice in the real estate world. To give a theoretical example, there could be a $500 bonus for reaching a set goal of at least 98% of the budgeted revenue for a particular quarter. If the property revenue earnings are a total of $1,300,200 for a quarter and the budgeted amount for that time is $1,320,000 (i.e., 98.5%), you would earn the $500 because you would be above the 98% goal. If you were able to maintain that goal for every quarter, you would earn $2,000 (i.e, $500 x 4 quarters). There can be a combination of different bonus amounts for different goals so there is the possibility to earn a considerable aggregated bonus. However, bonuses are never guaranteed and can even be challenging to earn depending upon the financial health of the property and the team’s ability to keep beds filled and costs under control.
Benefits: Unlike working for a college or university directly, the benefits are going to differ in many regards. Educational benefits are generally NOT included for the employee and / or their spouse and dependent children. Also, any 401(k) retirement plans are also not going to be as generous either. For example, when I worked for a privatized housing firm, their match was 1.5% for the 3% that I contributed toward my retirement fund. Colleges and universities commonly match at a much higher rate, including above a 9% contribution where I currently work. In some cases, a firm may offer discounted company stock options that can be paid for by deductions from your paycheck. This can be a nice option, but there can be various restrictions set by the company related to how much you can purchase and the terms upon which you can sell that stock. Additionally, health care coverage is generally going to be more pricey than what is typically offered through colleges and universities.
Below is a compensation chart that illustrates the base salary, bonus, and total compensation for property community managers based upon the bed count of the property. Different firms are going to offer different compensation packages and they will vary dependent upon the size of the property. Obviously there are going to be differences based upon the cost of living of the area in which the job is located. This data came from the July / August 2017 Student Housing Business magazine (pp. 40 – 41).
PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT – Professional development looks different than what you may have become accustomed to on campus, particularly with going to ACPA, ACUHO-I, NASPA or other Student Affairs-related conferences. Most of the training will be based on operations, including marketing, leasing, customer service, and facilities management. This can occur through webinars, online training modules, and even during company retreats held at locations near the corporate office. The training that I received working for a private student housing firm has been invaluable in my current role as a senior housing officer.
BOTTOM LINE ADVICE:
Look at the turnover history of the property staff and ask why the manager position is currently open? It is naive to think that you will be able to save the day for a property that has a history of challenges. Be careful that you are not walking into a nightmare situation you will regret. Granted, people leave for a variety of reasons, including being promoted. However, there is a significant amount of volatility among manager positions nationally so assess the culture of the company, the qualities and experience of the person that you would be reporting to, and be prepared to ask thoughtful and probing questions.
If it is too good to be true, it probably is. Be particularly careful when talking with “headhunters.” These are contracted recruiters who earn money by finding viable candidates for companies. I have been contacted numerous times by headhunters who were attempting to sell a position that I was simply not interested in. I also had one recruiter that was particularly pushy trying to get me to interview for a manager position at a property that was struggling in a saturated market. Don’t take the bait and inherit a problem that has little chance of being resolved.
As should be the case with any job offer, get it in clear writing, including any bonus programs offered. Never accept anything unless you have it in writing. A hiring manager (and / or their human resources department) should be transparent with the salary, benefits, and how bonuses are earned. Don’t get caught into “We’ll see how it goes!” or “There are bigger opportunities coming down the road!” red herring-type conversations that are empty promises. Know exactly what you are agreeing to. In the end, it should be a “win-win” relationship.
Once you are out, it can be hard to get back in. While P3’s and privatized housing firms are here to stay and an important part of the higher education landscape, there is still much suspicion and disdain among Student Affairs professionals regarding these companies. I certainly felt this among certain campus colleagues and oftentimes at many professional conferences across the country. I clearly remember one time interviewing for a senior housing officer position at a flagship institution and the hiring manager made the comment, “I have no clue why an institution would ever outsource their housing?!” Because of these types of negative opinions and stereotypes that exist about privatized housing firms, you can be easily dismissed over other candidates applying and interviewing for campus positions that have a traditional residence life path.
CONCLUSION – There are many considerations to make when deciding to work for any organization, including colleges and universities as well as privatized housing firms. You need to do your homework and find out as much as you can about the position. Talk to your colleagues and mentors about the opportunity as well as any current or former colleagues from that particular housing firm that you may know.
What questions do you have that I may help you with? Additionally, what advice do you have if you have transitioned from campus to the privatized housing world or vice versa. Leave your comments and questions below.
While apartment and suite-style student housing may pose certain challenges, there are certain strategies and tactics that will make you more successful when attempting to create community within these environments. However, if you approach programming as an ends to a means (i.e., simply a requirement), the chance that you are going to have an authentic and vibrant community is going to be slim. Community building can occur through intentional and strategic programming and by re-thinking how we actually do programming in the residence halls.
RELATIONSHIP BUILDING IS KEY – This may seem like common sense, but this is one strategy that many housing and residence life staffers fail to accomplish. Putting food out in a lounge, clubhouse, or other common area with little to any interaction with students is a recipe for failure. Pizza, movies, and cookies won’t make a community. I strongly believe in the adage that people don’t care about you until you show that you care about them. I have heard many RA’s complain that no one is coming to their programs, but they can barely tell you the names of their residents, where they come from, what their majors are, and what each of them is passionate about. Why would anyone want to attend your programs if you don’t really know who they are? If their attendance is merely a means to an ends for a programming requirement, your success will be low.
Simple and thoughtful interactions in and of themselves will help to develop relationships and thereby set the stage for community building: asking them to go to eat at the dining hall; get a crew together to go to Walmart or Target with you; putting together an intramural sports team; inviting a few to watch TV or play a video game or board game; etc. Work on small wins throughout the resident population rather than attempting to always expect a bunch of people to come to a centralized location for a program. RA’s should be able to thoughtfully touch the lives of each resident once (at the very least!) per semester.
IT’S NOT ABOUT THE PHYSICAL STRUCTURE – I always take pause when I hear housing and residence life staff blame the lack of community on the type of housing in which their students reside. Just because there are a multitude of online and DVD options for in-home exercise programs, this does not mean that less people are signing up for and going to gyms and recreation centers across the country. Likewise, just because students live in newly constructed suites and apartments, this does not mean that they do not want to be involved with their peers for various educational and social opportunities.
For a ten year period, I was in charge of student apartment housing at two different campuses and was able to create community at both places through hard work, creativity, strategic planning, and perseverance. Granted, not every one was best friends with each other nor did everyone participate, but this is never guaranteed within traditional residence halls either. However, I had success in developing a community in which students respected one another, the facilities, and attended and enjoyed various programming options that were offered.
RE-ADJUST EXPECTATIONS & GOALS / RETHINK NUMBERS – Netflix, smart phones, social media, and tons of online entertainment options for students are here to stay. With that being said, Residence Life staffers should re-adjust their expectations for programming success because we’re competing with a multitude of options for activities. Staff should not expect that every activity or program have tons of attendees present; nor should professional staff push that agenda either because overall it’s mostly unobtainable.
Additionally, Residence Life should not be charged with providing constant entertainment for students. Also, some students will attend programs and others will not no matter what you do. And that’s OK! Unfortunately, we can take this to heart and “stinkin’ thinkin” comes into play with unproductive thoughts (e.g., students don’t want to do anything; the RA didn’t work hard enough; we’ll never be able to build community in these buildings; etc.) Don’t take it personally. Reach as many lives as you can, and celebrate your successes!
FAIL FAST – I have read many articles in which serial entrepreneurs (i.e., business people who have created many different businesses) say, “FAIL FAST!” Basically this means that you should try something, and if it doesn’t work, move on, and try something else. The same goes for programming in the suite and apartment-style housing. If something works, stick with it. If not, move on and try something else. Also, don’t get hung up on the things that didn’t work.
DO AWAY WITH THE 1970 / 80’s PROGRAMMING ARCHETYPE – Gone are the days of dance parties in the “dormitory” rec room with a house mother and / or Dean of Men or Dean of Women present. As the times have changed, so should our programming efforts. However, we drag around old practices and traditions that are largely ineffective. With the emergence of various innovative practices, such as residential curricula and living-learning communities, there is more of a need for Residence Life to tie directly into retention and meaningful student learning outcomes rather than glorified entertainment.
PARTNER WITH OTHERS – ResLifers can be crazy territorial when it comes to developing and implementing programs. I myself, unfortunately, have been like this for the majority of my career. However, over the past few years I have come to find that partnering with other campus departments is definitely a “win-win” when it comes to developing successful activities and programs within suite and apartment-style living (and saves time and resources in the meantime!) I have seen a virtual “arms race” when it comes to program implementation and the competition for the attention of students between such departments as Residence Life, Recreation & Intramurals, Greek Life, Student Activities, and Diversity & Social Justice. Partnering with others allows for the sharing of resources and the ability to market to a broader resident population.
For example, within the one apartment community I managed, my staff partnered with Student Activities for biweekly, large-type events in our clubhouse space. We hosted everything from an open mic coffeehouse, “Stuff-A-Buddy” stuffed animal making activity, make-your-own beta fish bowl (including the fish!), Lucky Bamboo, and other “crafty” type events, with much success.
Furthermore, I created and advised a comprehensive Leadership Living-Learning Community complete with a curricula, budget, and assessment activities. I was even able to advocate for and obtain 40 housing scholarships for the student members of the LLC group. I developed lectures, workshops, and service learning opportunities with various campus partners, such as the Office of Volunteering & Service Learning (i.e., community volunteer opportunities), Career Services (i.e., networking, resume development), and Veteran Affairs (i.e., leading and supervising people). We worked with a faculty member and even the university president and the VP of Marketing & University Relations spoke to the group on separate occasions. This partnering strategy was successful because all of those campus entities got a “win” with the program and were able to report their work to the community at large and were proud of it. (By the way, I am a Maximizer and Achiever for all you Strengths people!) And yes, this LLC program occurred within an apartment community!
DON’T SET UP YOUR STUDENT STAFF TO FAIL WITH RESTRICTING REQUIREMENTS – Along with the programming archetype and re-adjusting expectations, be mindful of the programming requirements that you place upon your student staffers. This can really make or break their success. We need to remember that RA’s are students as well and have competing priorities. (Plus we have to be very mindful of hours worked and the Affordable Care Act.) This does not mean that we cannot expect excellence from them, but we need to work toward setting them up for more wins than failures. Requiring a tons of programs in which ultimately only a small handful of students are going to attend is counterproductive. Not only will this burn out staff, but residents can feel hassled as well with a constant barrage of marketing.
Here are some tips for changing typical requirements:
Allow “passive programs” as part of the requirement (these are easy wins for the RA!)
Permit RA’s to work together as much as possible (fun + teamwork = good!)
Foster building-wide programs rather than floor or wing-specific; there is a larger chance of more attendees showing up if you are marketing to 500 building residents overall rather than 50. For example, my one previous Senior RA was an avid “Gotham” TV show fan. Instead of forcing her to solely market to her apartment building (96 residents), she was permitted to market to the entire community of 770 residents. By doing this, she had roughly 15 students appear to watch the show, which was a positive attendance given it was a “niche” program; if she would have offered the program to only her building, she wouldn’t have had the same success.
Emphasize “relationship-building” as part of the programming requirement so that the RA becomes an actual trusted resource and mentor rather than a glorified “dorm concierge.”
Create “unorthodox” options as well, such as online and social media options to interact with, engage, and educate residents (e.g., blogging, webinars, YouTube videos, etc.)
Work on small wins throughout the resident population rather than “one off” large-type programs.
ADVERTISE! ADVERTISE! ADVERTISE! – I cannot emphasize this enough! A lonely flyer on a bulletin board isn’t going to cut it. Staff need to be strategic and persistent when it comes to marketing their programs. There are so many resources available now at an RA’s dispense to get the word out there (i.e., social media, email, text, etc.) Friendly reminders the day of can also help. Marketing in and of itself can help to develop community as staff must interact with residents in some shape of form to get the word out there. As much time should be put into marketing the program as the actual event itself.