In 1990, Bemidji State University thought it was starting a trend when it decided to open its first residence hall just for single parents.
The goal was to make it easier for adults to return to school by letting them live — and raise their kids — on campus. So the university spent $1.8 million to convert part of an old dorm, Pine Hall, into two- and three-bedroom apartments.
As it turned out, the "trend" really didn't catch on. Twenty-five years later, single-parent housing is still a rarity on college campuses, says Jodi Monerson, director of residential life at Bemidji State. But she can't help wondering why.
"There's definitely a need," she said. Especially now, when colleges and universities rely more than ever on "nontraditional" students to fill their classrooms.
At Bemidji State, the single-parent residence hall, called Cedar Apartments, has waxed and waned in popularity over the years. "We used to be full and have waiting lists," said Monerson. But this past year, she learned that a third of the 21 apartments were vacant, and decided that had to change.
"We just didn't do a good job of marketing," she said.
One of the first steps was to remodel a drab basement into a playroom bursting with toys and primary colors. This spring, the university launched a publicity blitz to spread the word about the apartments, which run $550 to $650 a month, utilities included.
The result: Now the residence hall is almost full.
That's important, Monerson says, because the families rely on one another as a natural support group. "The nice part is that they're surrounded in a community with others that are in their same situation," she said. "They can help each other out."
The students and their families can stay in the housing as long as they're in school. But when graduation day arrives, it's time to move out.
Asked if students might drag out their studies rather than leave, Monerson just laughed. "They're still usually pretty excited to graduate and move on to whatever's next," she said.