Dorm Deluxe

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Some people choose the college they will attend for its distinguished faculty, others for its bowl-winning football team and not a few for its girl-to-guy ratio. But Amanda Botway decided on Chicago's Illinois Institute of Technology when she saw the dorm she would live in. Outside, the $28 million State Street Village residence hall, designed by renowned architect Helmut Jahn, is constructed of corrugated, stainless-steel panels and walls of tinted glass. Inside, a glass elevator glides from pristine courtyards to a fifth-floor penthouse, where there's a sleek lounge with leather sofas and a 50-in. plasma TV. Botway's 250sq.ft. corner room has floor-to-ceiling picture windows that offer a panoramic view of the city skyline and a wireless Internet connection that, among other uses, lets her know when her laundry is done. Says the freshman, 18, from East Setauket, N.Y.: "I was, like, 'Wow, this is so cool.'"

Cool, of course, comes at a price. Botway's room sets her parents back $6,270 a school year. Shared rooms in older McCormick Hall cost just $2,842. But at McCormick, cinder-block rooms line narrow corridors, bathrooms are communal, and lighting is fluorescent — in other words, it's just a regular dorm. "There was no way I was going to live there," Botway says with a shudder. "It's dark, depressing, and everything smells." Mom stands by her: "We've scraped it together because we felt it was more important to have her in a healthy environment," says Pam Botway. Her daughter giggles. "I know. I'm spoiled," Amanda says.

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Until recently, even spoiled kids heading off to college made do with matchbox-size rooms, grotty bathrooms and that weary-looking furniture unique to institutional living. But now colleges and universities across the country are pouring millions of dollars into the kind of fancy housing that many students won't be able to afford again until years after graduation. School officials say the improvements, particularly in technology, are needed to accommodate the children of baby boomers, who are used to being indulged at home. But at a time when the spiraling cost of higher education is causing considerable parental agita, some wonder how much college students really need a Jacuzzi down the hall.

Indeed, many of today's dorms come with the kind of extras common at high-end resorts. Every residence hall built in 2002 had air conditioning and high-speed Internet access, according to the trade publication American School & University. Suites and apartments are replacing the old, cramped doubles. Over the past three years, for example, Florida International University has added 900 rooms in halls with luxury amenities like pools, sundecks, reserved parking, convenience stores, computer labs and 24-hour reception. Freshman Ashley Bullock, 17, lives in a suite with 14ft. ceilings and a fully equipped kitchen in the school's newly opened, $19 million Everglades Hall. Bullock enjoys sharing her $5,400-a-year suite with two other women, but she really enjoys the fact that she shares her bathroom with just one of them and her 110-sq.-ft. bedroom with no one. "It's like being at home," she says.

That's exactly the kind of response schools are going for and what they say they need to stay competitive. "This is an arms race," says Sandy Baum, a professor of economics at Skidmore College who conducts the Annual Survey of Colleges for the College Board. With state budgets and private donations slashed, schools are desperate to fill classrooms with tuition-paying students, particularly those who can afford full fare. Dorms are not only one of the few healthy sources of revenue, but also a major selling point. "It's a matter of survival for some institutions," says Tom Hier of Biddison Hier, a student-housing planning firm based in Washington. "If your competitors are building, you have to be on the leading edge too."

Michigan State University surveyed its students to find out how to keep them from moving off campus and taking their housing dollars with them. This resulted in the renovation and upgrade of older dorms, including Robert S. Shaw Hall. Carmen Ornelas, 21, and her sister Sara, 19, both sophomores, decided to live there because they like brushing their teeth while watching soaps on the bathroom TV and sauntering upstairs to the Jacuzzi. Shaw manager Carol Noud admits the "therapeutic jet tub," as school officials prefer to call it, has some parents worried. "One mom did say to me, 'I want you to promise me only one person will be using that tub at a time,'" Noud says, laughing. "Like we can control our students."

Top schools feel less pressure to house students like sheiks. "Upper-tier schools don't have to work as hard," says consultant Hier. "If you're Harvard, you're never going to have to worry. I went to my 20year reunion at Brown, and nothing had changed but the paint." Even so, Cornell, Dartmouth and the University of Pennsylvania are among the Ivies spending millions to spiff up their dorms. Stanford University is in the middle of a $300 million housing renovation. Still, says Rodger Whitney, executive director of Stanford's student housing, "We're not going in the direction of providing what I call country-club facilities."

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