Accessibility starts at home. And thanks to a $31 million boost from California’s Higher Education Student Housing Grant Program, Napa Valley College (NVC) will soon be supporting students right where they live.

River Trail Village, slated to welcome new tenants in August 2024, aims to resolve the college’s long-standing accessibility issues, providing a dedicated, diverse housing community for 588 students. The culmination of an effort launched in 2017 to alleviate student expenses and travel burdens, the project will break ground at an opportune time for NVC, with rising rents correlating increasingly to shrinking enrollment.

“I think it brings a comprehensive student experience to Napa Valley College that’s unique to community colleges,” says NVC Assistant Superintendent Jim Reeves. “Students can live and work in the area and reduce their time of travel.”

Nestled in the high-rent environs of California’s wine country, Napa Valley College’s location and reputation make for an attractive higher education destination. But in a region where a 900-square-foot apartment can command $2,500 or more, access can be an issue. Contracts for River Trail Village’s 280 units will start at around $600 per month for qualified applicants, making it possible for out-of-town students to live, work and be part of a community while they pursue their higher education goals. But the best part, according to Reeves?

“They’d be in Napa,” he says, referencing NVC’s breathtaking backdrop – a world-famous region known as much for its fine quality of life as its first-class wines. “We have a very accomplished learning community where students can thrive.”

The project represents a pioneering venture for Napa Valley College, which will become the third new California community college to debut dedicated on-campus housing in response to the system’s renewed commitment to access. By the time River Trail Village opens, similar communities will have debuted at Orange Coast College in Southern California, as well as North Bay neighbor Santa Rosa Junior College. In total, 14 colleges statewide will boast on-campus housing by 2024, with even more efforts underway in pricy communities like Santa Cruz. 

“The true cost of attending college is more than tuition,” says NVC President Dr. Torence Powell. “Part of providing a comprehensive academic program is ensuring students have their basic needs covered so they can pursue their education without worrying about their next meal or where they will sleep each night.”

The concept is simple, and according to feasibility studies conducted by NVC as far back as 2017, it’s proven: Students who live on campus tend to be more inspired, engaged and motivated. In turn, they approach their studies with more focus and less stress, becoming far less likely to succumb to the usual barriers to persistence: namely, cost, time commitment and lack of connectedness.

California is betting big on that philosophy, committing nearly $2 billion in new student housing infrastructure in just the past two years. While effectively a drop in the bucket in relation to the cascading needs of California students, it’s a signal that the state’s higher education policy architects are thinking beyond free tuition.

“We are fortunate to have a state Legislature and a governor that recognize the need for affordable housing for college students, especially community college students who have been significantly impacted in the current housing crisis,” says Powell.

For equity-minded college leaders like Reeves, California’s increasing willingness to subsidize student housing is a welcome trend. 

“We need access to our institutions and it needs to be equitable access,” he opines. “Spending more time on campus and working locally – that improves their chance for success.”

“Students are clear winners,” agrees then-Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who oversaw the push for student housing funding as part of the system’s Vision for Success. The investments, he predicted, “will strengthen educational equity and economic mobility for Californians.”

In addition to dorm-style residences, plans for River Trail Village include dedicated “grad school-style” housing intended for students supporting families. The idea, says Reeves, is to create a “co-curricular experience” while fostering a supportive, welcoming environment under the widest possible tent. The arrangement benefits Napa Valley businesses, as well, affording new access to a pool of potential employees for which a traditional commute would have been impossible.

“The workforce in Napa is looking for people to work,” urges the project’s spokesman .

With an eye toward innovation, NVC conceived River Trail Village as a next-level learning community combining university-style residential life with integrated support programs. The complex, funded by $31 million in state grant money, proffers a mix of single-family and dorm-style housing, including shared kitchens, courtyards, study rooms and community areas. The grounds will also include electric vehicle charging stations to encourage sustainability. 

“The dynamics that occur on campus are qualitatively different,” says Reeves. “[There’s more] exposure of students to cultural events, athletic events and the local community.”

As an established classroom-to-career pipeline and proven conduit to Bay Area universities like UC Berkeley, UC Davis, San Jose State and more, Napa Valley College is hoping to attract not only larger enrollment numbers, but a more diverse and dynamic student body. The college’s unique Winemaking program, for example, now has the potential to draw from a pool of students worldwide – even, Reeves theorizes, an exchange student from France’s Bordeaux region looking to broaden their viticultural horizons.

“Could happen,” muses the assistant superintendent. “Housing will attract students who might not be typically connected to us in the past.” 

Consequently, initial interest in applying for residence at River Trail Village is expected to run high. With the grand opening just three semesters away, those hoping to join the first cohort of NVC natives are encouraged to inquire early – ideally as soon as the application process opens next summer. 

“Based on all these factors: price, programs, the area … I have no doubt that we’re going to have more demand than we have supply,” says Reeves.

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