As Elon University has grown from a small college to a large university, administrators have sought to maintain the delicate balance necessary to preserve a healthy relationship with the Town of Elon and its residents.
But it hasn’t been one-sided. Long lagging behind the university in terms of construction and general economic development, the Town of Elon has begun to carve out a path of its own — with the help of the university.
In recent years, the town and the university have partnered to create what is now known as the "Downtown Elon Master Vision," a sweeping redesign of the town that calls for grassy commons, built-up commercial offerings and an influx of assorted retail establishments.
All of the changes — some more concrete now than others — have made it especially important to ensure things go smoothly between Town of Elon residents and the university students who share streets and live door-to-door, according to Jana Lynn Patterson, associate vice president for Student Life and dean of Student Health and Wellness.
“What benefits students benefits the town,” Patterson said. “Sometimes, folks think it’s mutually exclusive when it’s not.”
Grand plans for changing the face and function of downtown Elon would not be possible without the support and economic impact generated by students into local businesses, said Town of Elon Mayor Jerry Tolley . The longtime mayor called the slow growth policy outlined in the Elon University Commitment — typically, adding a hundred or so more students each year — a “good thing.”
Off-campus neighborhoods mix students, families
Still, nothing can be perfect in a mixed community in which inhabitants run the gamut from students to working professionals to entire families, Patterson said. Relations can, though, be strengthened through a combination of patience and community outreach — on both sides, from the town to the university.
For the dean, parts of some days are spent mediating disputes between students living in off-campus houses and town residents who have taken issue with the behavior of their student neighbors. Complaints over the last two years, though, have declined, which Patterson attributed to better-behaving students and more understanding members of the community.
It can be easy to view students living off-campus as there only for a good time, she said. On some streets, on some weekend mornings, red solo cups litter front yards, spilling their day-old grimy contents onto the grass, staining the pavement. Outside some houses, trash bags pile up, unchecked for weeks at a time. There are loud parties, overflowing with people, supplied with plenty of kegs. This is college, after all.
But the littering and the partying and the like have been “much better” than in years past, she said, to the point where the dean sometimes finds herself defending students from landlords or longtime residents who may have treated them unfairly.
“We wouldn’t want people to have a different standard for our students than they would for other residents,” she said.
And while the university continues to add students each year, construction must keep pace to ensure there are enough beds to house those who want to live on-campus, said MarQuita Barker, associate director of residence life.
Video Clip: Baker discusses expansion plans for Elon Residence Life.
For undergraduates, living on-campus has been linked to improved well-being, higher grades and a more vibrant social life. As of last year — the most recent period with available data — Elon University had 62 percent of undergraduates living on-campus, up 3 percent from 10 years ago.
“We don’t like it when students just come to class and come home, and they’re not connected with the institution after their classes are gone,” Barker said.
For students, the living decision can be tough
The choice between on and off-campus life can be a tough one for students on the fence, said Steven Armendariz , a junior living in Oaks on-campus this year. For him, a sense of community won out — even over the increased cost of campus accommodations.
“Living in the Oaks Neighborhood also still gives that that nice community feel ... If you were living in an off-campus house you would only be communicating maybe with your neighbors,” Armendariz said.
Currently, Residence Life imposes on students a two-year requirement for living on campus. Other similar institutions, such as Wake Forest University, to the west of Elon University, go further. Wake Forest recently switched to a three-year residency requirement for students, and housing is guaranteed for all four years, or eight semesters.
“I definitely think the two-year requirement isn’t going anywhere,” Barker said, adding that there are difficulties in imposing a more-stringent requirement, from simply having enough beds to ensuring there are enough students who actually want to live on-campus as upperclassmen. She added that a switch to a three-year model is not likely but a “possibility” down the line for Residence Life.
Senior Chris Soloway is one of several upperclassmen living off-campus. The business administration and political science double-major technically lives in a different zip code, in Burlington, just across the border with the Town of Elon on Saddle Club Road.
After spending his sophomore and junior years living in the Oaks, Soloway and a friend decided it was time for a change, trading an apartment for a spacious house with a large backyard.
Though Soloway said he knows some students buck the trend, the majority of seniors culturally think they “have to move off-campus with their friends and party and that sort of thing.”
“For the school, if it really does want to have this residential thing, the way it’s going to have to do it is requiring more than two years on-campus because as long as this sort of culture is around where people have to live off-campus, I don’t think people are going to want to live in Oaks as a junior or a senior,” Soloway said.
To students, it’s also about seeing the town’s Master Vision in action, evidence of a built-up retail scene. For many, the first concrete example in the town has been the ongoing construction of Park Place at Elon.
But that’s just a start.
“As Elon grows and becomes more prominent, it’s important that the town has more to offer students,” Soloway said. “There’s no reason why students should have to go very far off campus to get lots of food options or go buy what they want to buy.”
Gary Grumbach also contributed to this story.