Drexel University’s University City Campus has changed a lot over the last decade, but one of the most notable changes may be when our name broke into the Philadelphia city skyline.
These glowing markers, visible from the Schuylkill Expressway as well as to travelers coming in from the city’s western suburbs, rest atop both sides of the University Crossings building at 32nd Street and JFK Boulevard. This 1,000+ bed residential living facility for Drexel’s upperclassmen is operated by American Campus Communities (ACC), which also operates similar residential buildings Chestnut Square and The Summit.
ACC was tapped by President John Fry at the beginning of the decade to aid his vision of making Drexel a modern, engaged, urban learning community by expanding housing options on campus to accommodate increased enrollment. And since ACC became a University-affiliated housing partner, Drexel’s housing capacity has been extended by more than 3,000 beds, helping to make the 2-Year Residency program the success that it is today.
So, how has ACC’s partnership with the University expanded since 2010, and what should incoming, first-year and upperclass students know about ACC living? Here are some of the important misconceptions to debunk and facts to know about ACC’s facilities, policies and future plans:
ACC is part of Drexel and considered on-campus housing
Although ACC-operated housing options are well-woven into the fabric of Drexel’s campus and living experience, it is important to note the differences between University-affiliated and on-campus housing. Despite the fact that ACC and Drexel University Housing work closely together and create synergies, their processes and policies do differ.
Matt Mechlin, area manager for American Campus Communities, said both parties do their best to educate students and parents on these differences by presenting in UNIV 101 classes, giving family weekend presentations, as well as additional webinars and physical mailers. They also cross-reference applications and leases to make sure there are no duplicate housing assignments due to confusion.
“The Drexel/ACC partnership continues to improve year over year,” Mechlin said. “I think transparency is key because we're all in this to help each other. You know, the University is here to help us and then, vice versa, we're here to help the University.”
ACC never evolves their processes or offerings.
One of the major things that ACC has worked through with the University in recent years was the increase in first-year enrollment. Enrollment in 2017 and 2018 surpassed 3,200 and 3,300 students respectively, whereas the incoming class in 2016 was just 2,324. This brought about the need for changes in ACC’s leasing in-person process that they quickly headed.
“Three or four years ago, we didn’t have any lines. It was a very smooth, rolling process. … And then all of a sudden, we had this demand,” Mechlin said, snapping his fingers for effect. “It created a massive rush, we had lines out the door. It just wasn't a really good overall experience for the students, also for the staff, too.”
This is why ACC’s application and leasing process was quickly adapted to become fully virtual as of last year. Students interested in living with ACC for the next academic year would simply apply for a specific floor plan, and then on a weekend in January, ACC would send out leases which students would have to sign and send back to secure their placement.
As with most new processes involving thousands of people, there were misconceptions that arose during last year’s pilot period. Most notably, guarantors thought they had to sign in a short time frame to guarantee their student’s preferred housing, which actually wasn’t the case. And even though the lease agreements were sent out on a Friday evening so as not to overlap with class times, a small group of students were scheduled for class at this time, and were distracted by the need to have their phones out, waiting to spring into action when their lease agreement came in via email.
“We take all that feedback and we come back to the drawing board,” Mechlin said. “We take the time to reflect on it and we say ‘OK, we need to make this better, a better experience for everybody.’ But over the years, we’ve improved the process exponentially in my opinion and in a lot of folks’ opinions: parents, students and everything.”
One other area ACC has focused on improving their offerings is with co-op leasing. When Mechlin first came to work for ACC with Drexel in 2015, there was no co-op leasing in place. So, if students did an out-of-town co-op or studied abroad, they would have to relet their space, or in other words, find a replacement.
“We looked very closely again at our partnership with Drexel and we said, ‘Hey, you know, a co-op is an important part of the Drexel experience. They're getting this opportunity [living] on campus. We need to kind of think about what we can do to at least have something that is co-op friendly,’” Mechlin said, “so that you can be relaxed knowing that if you're going to go on co-op outside of Philadelphia or study abroad overseas, you at least have something in your lease agreement that can relieve you of your obligation because that is an important part of their experience here.”
So for the 2016 academic year, co-op leasing was introduced with certain floor plans and properties, and then this past year it was opened to all rising sophomores.
“We were super excited and really proud that we were able to roll it out to all floor plans,” Mechlin said. “Yes, it is challenging when you have roommate requests and everything, so we do try to be completely upfront.”
ACC makes decisions on a whim.
With all of the exciting upgrades ACC has made in recent years, it’s inevitable that there will also be kinks to work out.
“There’s going to be bumps in the road… so we kind of have to work through that and make it through the speed bumps and everything and kind of map it out for next year,” Mechlin said.
And plan, they do. ACC uses everything from historical data to the brain-trust that is their staff to make better and better plans year after year. In fact, as soon as they get through the rising sophomore priority period each year, Mechlin says they immediately sit down to map out what worked well and what didn’t.
“Of course, if you wait a month, two months, you know you start to forget things or it may not be fresh in your mind,” he said. “We make a list and say, ‘Hey, this went well, this maybe we need to improve on,’ and we continue to revisit it as time goes on.”
This is why, in this coming academic year, they plan to take steps like better communicating the lease agreement steps and timeline, and also better ensure that when floor plans at a certain price point sell out, there are comparable alternatives available, which is something else ACC is working through following feedback from last year.
“We want to make it better for the next year, for the next group of students coming in,” Mechlin said. “Yes, they may not see that immediately, whatever the case might be, but that feedback is important to us so we can better the process.”
ACC overseas its properties in a removed way.
Speaking of feedback, there are plenty of ways to provide yours to ACC representatives — and they want to hear from you.
“Emailing, phone calls, in person — any means of communication, we respond to,” Mechlin said. “With feedback, we’re very big on sending out surveys and everything, too.”
Each living community has its own phone number and email address where responses should be received within 24–48 hours, if not sooner. Maintenance requests are also handled in a similar time frame.
In addition, each property has its own leasing office which is open seven days a week.
“You can actually walk in the building and talk to somebody,” Mechlin said. “I think there's that misconception that we're operating at one office or [we’re not here at all]. So it's like, ‘Hey, each community has its own office. We have all these things that we can show you and walk you through, seven days a week. So if you're in classes all day on a Monday, that's fine. Come in on a Saturday or Sunday and get your questions answered.”
Not only that, but ACC employs community assistants who are very similar to a resident assistant on campus. They have set office hours, but are also on call for anything that may happen after hours and to run resident programming.
“Although they're not directly resident assistants, they have a lot of those same responsibilities and they're also a student staff, too,” Mechlin said. “So [residents] do have those peers that are direct contacts in the office.”
ACC does not work directly with students.
If there was one parting message Mechlin had for students and families, it’s that they’re here to help.
“If there is a question or a concern, my recommendation is always just to reach out directly to the office,” he said, as opposed to relying on peers or taking to social media. “But, really, we're open to any form of communication on any kind of platform. Wherever there's feedback we want to get it, we want to hear it.”
And making direct contact with students is something ACC is looking forward to doing even more in the future. Following a town hall hosted by the Undergraduate Student Government Association in January, Mechlin is looking forward to more opportunities like this to bring direct feedback back to his team and enact change.
One thing that came up at the town hall were gender-inclusive housing policies, and ACC quickly worked to mirror how this is offered on campus. Where it was once called “co-ed leasing” and required additional paperwork and parent or guardian sign-off, now opting in for gender-inclusive housing is as easy as checking a few boxes on the student’s resident profile for this fall.
“In order to provide a comfortable and inclusive living environment for all of our residents, American Campus Communities offers both same-gender traditional and gender-inclusive unit assignments,” details the form. “Gender-inclusive is a housing option in which two or more residents share a multiple-occupancy unit regardless of the residents’ sex, gender, gender identity, or gender expression.”
All-in-all, most current students will experience campus living with ACC for at least one year of their Drexel experience. Through the many updates and changes to ACC’s partnership with the University — as well as to Drexel itself and its student body — Mechlin says they carry the same, simple goal from year to year.
“We want to have 100 percent occupancy and 100 percent satisfied residents,” he said.