BOSTON — Cinder blocks for walls, narrow beds, distant bathrooms, and stacks of milk crates: Such are the memories of many a college grad's first dorm.
But as students head back to school this fall, many will be stretching out on double beds, storing toiletries in their own bathrooms, and decorating their rooms with everything from multicolored bed stands to matching floral ottomans and paper lanterns.
It seems the popularity of makeover shows on television, such as "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy" and "Design on a Dime," has fueled a decorating craze on college campuses. No longer content to put up with the institutional feel of aging dormitories built in the 1960s, today's students are bent on making their nests a combination of comfort, style, and privacy. And retailers and college planners are taking note.
New numbers from the National Retail Federation (NRF) reveal that students and their parents will spend $34.4 billion this year returning to campus, up 33.8 percent from the year before. Spending on dorm and apartment furnishings is expected to spike from $2.6 billion last year to $3.6 billion in 2005.
At the same time, academic institutions focusing on how best to attract and keep students in a competitive market are finding many of the answers lie in living spaces. "We are at a nexus right now," says Michael Coakley, assistant vice president for student life at Northern Illinois University. "People are building, and everybody has questions."
Questions are arising now, in part, because today's students know what they want, and for most it's lots of their own space that reflects their personal style.
For students heading to campus this fall, dorm living has evolved to become a place to try out a lifestyle. Students want to prepare their own food and go to sleep when they choose. They want access to parking, restaurants, and recreation.
Many colleges have responded to those needs by creating suites, mostly for upperclassmen, where students have their own rooms and share a bathroom with only one other student, or apartment-style residences complete with full kitchens and dishwashers.
Some say, however, that the trend toward cushy living has drawbacks. While tight spaces were a product of practicality, they provided life lessons that can't be taught in the classroom. Multiple roommates may try patience but they can also lessen feelings of isolation that many students, away from home for the first time, may feel. And the emphasis on spending money on trendy dorms and furnishings could give added social pressure to those who simply can't afford it.
But college nesting trends show no signs of slowing down and in recent years retailers have been quick to identify a market no longer content to shop just at the campus bookstore. Target's "Back to College" collection is featured prominently on its website; students at some schools can buy products that coordinate with their school's colors.
This summer, The Container Store launched a new online service: a questionnaire followed by product recommendations to help students define their dorm room look. The company will even connect students with organizational space experts.
"Retailers are providing merchandise that college students have always wanted, but it was not available," says Ellen Davis, an NRF spokeswoman. "It just started to become a force to be reckoned with three or four years ago."
Indeed, in a nearby The Container Store, Boston College students Diama and Lauren Meola said their dorm furnishings tab might run $2,000 to $3,000 each.
Even though retailers are pushing matching product lines, some students still may not be tempted to splurge. At a Target store in Somerville, Mass., Sarah Schoener, who will be entering Tufts University as a graduate student this fall, stood in front of brightly hued lamps and alarm clocks - an array unavailable when she was an undergrad a few years ago. "I cared what my room looked like," she says of her experience at the University of South Carolina, "but I didn't buy clocks or lamps or anything."
Lee Snijders, a host of HGTV's "Design on a Dime," did a "back to campus" episode for Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles for two students with limited means. The makeover turned a drab room into an organized space with a golf theme, including a putting green. He says since then he has heard from scores of students itching for similar makeovers. "They want to bring a feel to their room, make it their own," he says. "This is the decade of design shows."