Despite skyrocketing tuition (and student loan debt), many young adults are still enrolling in college. Scarce jobs means that more and more high school grads understand that a university degree is a necessity, no longer just an option.

An investor might ask, 'how can i take advantage of this trend?' Other than investing in for-profit schools, such as online educator Strayer Education Inc. (STRA), they can have a look at companies that provide or manage student housing. (For related reading, see: Get More Than An Education In Student Housing REITs)

Student Housing REITs To The Rescue

According to the Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, college enrollment will keep increasing through 2019. High schools will produce more than 3 million graduates annually until the 2018-19 academic year. During the 1993-94 academic year, high schools produced roughly 2.5 million graduates.

The average American student is now attending classes full-time and has stretched their time in college from four years to more than five. Add in the rising enrollment of foreign students in American universities and you have huge number of potential graduates staying in college longer.

All of this begs the question: 'where are all of these kids going to live?'

Not in dorms, at least not the ones older folks will remember. Space-challenged institutions already have more students than available dormitory rooms. And large state universities are facing dwindling budgets and are reluctant to build dorm capacity. As a result, universities and students are turning towards the private sector for a solution. Enter real estate investment trusts (REITs) that focus on student living and accommodations.

College towns have always catered to the housing needs of students with a variety of lower-budget houses and apartments. But today's student is demanding more. Garden-style apartments and townhouses are now common, some even feature luxury appliances, yoga studios and volleyball courts. That focus on luxury rather than cinder blocks has also driven up rental rates for student-focused REITs. Capitalization rates and rental fees for the student housing REITs remain some of the juiciest in the commercial real estate sector.

Aside from off-campus living, private student-housing purveyors are quickly entering the on-campus housing space and have recently inked deals to build new dorm-style apartments within colleges in exchange for long-term licensing fees. All in all, the continued trend of higher enrollments bodes well for the firms that supply student housing.

Buying Your Own Dorm

For investors looking to get into the student housing game, several traditional apartment-focused REITs, such as UDR Inc. (UDR) and AvalonBay Communities Inc. (AVB), have operations near college campuses. However, they aren’t pure plays. For more focused exposure, investors have better options.

The biggest REIT in this space is American Campus Communities Inc. (ACC). ACC currently owns/operates more than 167 different communities totaling a whopping 102,700 beds. And as of the beginning of June, 83.2% of all those beds were rented for the fall semester. That hefty occupancy rate has allowed ACC to increase its rents by 2.1% this year. However, American Campus isn’t done yet. The firm continues to develop new properties a blistering pace. And that includes a hefty dose of on-campus housing for various schools. All in all, increased occupancy and higher rents has allowed ACC to report robust cash flows and the firm recently upped its dividend by 5.6%. American Campus now yields 4%. That’s more than the broad REIT benchmark Vanguard REIT Index ETF (VNQ).

Not to be outdone, slightly smaller rival Education Realty Trust Inc. (EDR), or EdR as it’s now called, could be a great pick. EdR owns or manages 69 communities at 57 different universities in the U.S. And like ACC, it has gotten into the on-campus housing market. Recently, the REIT has begun a series of ambitious dormitory projects for the University of Kentucky. EdR currently yields 4.1%. (For more on similar REITs, see: Return of the REITs).

Finally, for those investor’s seeking potential growth from a turnaround play, Campus Crest Communities Inc. (CCG) could be a great pick. CCG went public at the end of 2010 but has stumbled over the last year. Its shares have fallen around 40% since the start of 2014. The bulk of the drop could be attributed to bad results coinciding with a major asset purchase. Once integrated, those assets should help turn the tide; its FFO has increased in recent quarters. CCG does compensate investors for its smaller stature and bigger risks with a large 7.4% payout, however.

The Bottom Line

College enrollment continues to surge. And with all those students needing a place to rest their heads, operators of student housing real estate should continue to benefit. Investors willing to 'head back to school' can be rewarded with better-than-sector-average dividends and gains.

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