Years before starting EducatedQuest I was a city planner. Among my first projects were housing market studies to determine if the either the local housing market had enough living options for a business that would move into a community, or if a proposed new residential development could be sold to the prospective buyers who were most likely to move into the market.
When I started visiting colleges through EducatedQuest I became more interested in housing for college students. Housing is one of the few college costs that could go up or down, depending on how astute students and families are, even at the point of choosing a college. I also like to eat, probably more than I should, so I became more interested in meals and meal plans.
How can the college costs associated with room and board actually go down?
The most likely cost to go down over time is the meal plan. Colleges that are more residential often force first-year students to purchase the most expensive or the second most expensive meal plan while placing more restrictions on the cooking that they can do in the residence halls. Colleges will claim that this is for the the students own good; they want to make sure that they eat well while becoming better acquainted with college life. I tend to believe a different reason: there is a cost to providing dining services and the operation has to at least break even.
Dining services managers are more cooperative with students eating cycles than they were when I was in college. Dining halls offer breakfast food during lunch time every day of the week and offer late hours during exam periods. They also offer more flexible meal plans. Those who like breakfast or lunch twice a day but don’t care for the choices on the dinner menus can eat on their schedule without losing meals.
The best way to cut these college costs over time is to drop down to fewer meals, learn to make healthy foods (even I could make a salad or buy wheat bread for toast) and exercise. Most college include unlimited use of their fitness center in the student fee. Yes, I’ve heard of many stories of students subsisting on ramen noodles, cereal and pizza–cereal has been a food group for a good part of my life–but they are more health conscious today.
Another way to make the college costs for housing go down is to choose a school that offers a variety of off-campus housing options. I always tell families of college-bound juniors and seniors to pick up apartment rental circulars when they visit the larger schools. Most large schools, especially state universities and private universities in very large cities, cannot offer on-campus housing to every student based on what every student is likely to want.
A first-year student might be satisfied with a double, even a triple or quad room in a residence hall but a senior is more likely to want to live in a house with a kitchen or an apartment. The school knows how many first-year students it is likely to have; it is probably been admitting around the same number of them for several years. It usually knows how many are likely to return for their second year. In most cases those students will live in a residence hall for another year. But the larger colleges cannot always predict the drop off from the second year to the third year, nor can they predict the numbers that will want to transfer in as juniors. For this reason, with few exceptions, they do not invest as much in housing for the upper class students.
This is why, when considering the larger schools, families should know the percentage of students who live on campus as well as the rents in the surrounding area. For example, for those who are looking at the Midwestern public universities in the Big Ten, here are the percentages of students who live on campus, according to data that the schools supplied to U.S. News:
I have visited six of these schools, five since I have operated this site. I am most familiar with Illinois, the most residential campus, since I earned a masters degree there. The university communities, Champaign and Urbana, have a very good public bus system. The more willing you are to ride the bus, the less expensive off campus housing will be. If you want to live within walking distance of campus, the university’s housing will be the lower cost option. It is impossible to have a car at Illinois; parking on campus is either metered or exceptionally limited. So a student will not get the best of both worlds: cheap housing and parking near campus. The same is true at Wisconsin, a place that I have visited often. It is less true at Ohio State, which borders a relatively inexpensive–but not the nicest–neighborhood in Columbus.
Another college cost associated with housing are the costs, if any, of subletting an off-campus apartment. This can be very difficult at a school such as Illinois, Indiana or Purdue, where most students do not live in the community during the summer. Fraternities and sororities at these schools can undercut the sublet rents; they also sublet rooms during the summer. It’s easier to sublet at a more urban school when the local housing market is expensive and students from out-of-town colleges want to live near your campus during the summer.
While the price of housing and meals could conceivably drop for students who go to larger schools, this is not often true for students who attend smaller schools and must live on campus for four years. Yes, the meal costs could drop, presuming that students are willing to cook instead of use the dining hall. But the costs of an on-campus apartment on a per-semester basis will almost always be higher than they will be for a room in a residence hall. The upside: students will live in that apartment only through the school year. They will not need to look for someone to take over the rent during the summer.
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