By Zoe McClain
As America recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, increased housing costs have made it particularly challenging for college students to pay expenses and be successful in school.
During the pandemic lockdown periods, student housing became less essential and many moved back home to save money. As universities have returned to in-person instruction, institutions are overwhelmed with the number of students now in need of housing.
Campus housing is always one of the indicators of whether or not a student will be able to attend a specific college or university. For most, taking out loans is not the ideal financial solution – today’s interest rates make that clear.
Grace Smith, a nursing student from Chicago who attended Ball State University, had to transition to community college and work a full-time job in order to make a living.
“It has affected me a lot. My last year I was in the dorms, but it was really expensive and I had to move off campus without a car,” she said.
Many college students are working minimum wage jobs that don’t pay them enough to afford their education, let alone additional housing costs. Based on an analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics, a student working an average of 24.8 hours per week earning federal minimum wage in 2018 would have to spend approximately 68% of their earnings to cover dorm expenses at a four-year public university, even before tax.
In 1972, that number was 21%.
Some students say that living in an off-campus apartment is more affordable.
Maddie Frodsham, an out-of-state DePaul University freshman, is already looking for apartments near the school’s Lincoln Park campus after her first term.
DePaul freshmen are not required to live on campus, but Frodsham said the dorms appealed to her from a social standpoint and as a way to ease the shift into city living. However, she said that was where the benefits ended for her.
“Strictly looking at the quality, it’s not worth it,” she said. “Since I’ve been looking for apartments, it’s way cheaper than the dorms. I do think it’s important for freshmen to live on campus so that they can have that social experience, but I don’t think it’s worth it to stay all four years.”
Transportation is a big factor in deciding where to live. Some students opt to live further away from campus and commute in exchange for cheaper rent, but Frodsham said that’s not a compromise she wants to make.
“I would personally rather live closer to campus,” she said. “Public transportation is kind of stressful and it’s not super reliable all the time. That chance of not getting to class on time is not worth it for me.”
Frodsham is familiar with the process of shopping for homes – her family has moved 16 times since she was born – but said looking as a student in the city is different.
“I think it’s easier for me since I’ve moved so many times, but I will say it’s difficult when looking for different criteria than for moving a family,” she said. “Also, since I’m completely new to Chicago, I don’t know the neighborhoods well, and it’s hard to find something that’s close to where I go to school.”
For a student who earns minimum wage, the search procedure is made more challenging by strict rental criteria. The very least to attempt to acquire an apartment for individuals without much credit (i.e., most college students), is usually a cosigner. A minimum credit score of 650 and a monthly untaxed income of at least three times the rent are prerequisites for one Chicago real estate firm.
Mashal Jiwani began her first year of pharmacy school at the University of Illinois at Chicago this fall and had similar concerns when making decisions about housing. She currently lives in Single Student Residence in UIC’s West Campus.
“If you get an apartment, sometimes the lease is for the whole year, not just the school year, so [on-campus living] is just easier,” Jiwani said
During the 2021-22 school year, Jiwani lived on East Campus in James Stukel Towers with four other students.
Jiwani made the move from East Campus to West to be closer to the College of Pharmacy buildings. “It was a pretty simple process,” she said.
Jiwani also said that having included amenities makes on-campus housing more appealing. “You don’t have to worry about electricity or heating or anything, and there’s laundry,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff included.”
Despite these conveniences, Jiwani has still shifted to thinking about an off-campus apartment for next year. Her two-person “efficiency apartment” at SSR is cheaper than her cluster dorm at JST, but she has sacrificed a lot of quality, she said. “The building is not as nice. It’s old and dusty. There are not as many windows… The rooms are kind of depressing.”
When it comes to supporting students with options to pay for campus housing, Jiwani has felt little coming from UIC. Many of the jobs on campus require a student to participate in Federal Work Study, a program based on financial need that she was not awarded.
UIC is also not legally required to pay student employees the $15.40 City of Chicago minimum wage, instead opting to pay the lesser state of Illinois minimum of $12. Because UIC is part of the University of Illinois system, the institution is considered a state school and can pay employees in accordance with state law.
Wages for student employees vary, according to the University’s wage plan, but the majority fall under what other Chicago employers offer.
One proposed call to action is for universities to offer more services for students who look for off-campus housing, since dorm costs are increasing at higher rates than salaries can compensate for. In addition to those services, many students argue there needs to be a conversation discussing an increase in pay for student workers.
In the current financial climate, students are looking across the board for support, but the primary direction is toward their colleges. Frodsham wishes DePaul offered more support for students looking to live off campus.
“[Students] do get plenty of housing options… but they’re so expensive. I feel like giving resources for students to find housing that is not owned by DePaul, as a bare minimum, would be useful. Rather than just being like, ‘Okay, go to Apartments.com, good luck,’” she said.
Jiwani said that UIC’s reluctance to improve campus housing and provide more support for students stems from the high proportion of commuter students.
“I can understand why it’s not the biggest priority because a lot of people are commuters, so it’s not that many people who choose [campus housing] as an option,” Jiwani said. But, she said, providing more resources for affording both on- and off-campus housing “would be helpful for students, and make the whole process easier.”
Smith was hit hard by the effects of unaffordable housing. “I had to take off a semester of school so I can work and make a living,” she said. “Now I take classes at community college.” She hopes to see a solution for current and future students, so that others can avoid the kind of experience she had.
Toni Raggs contributed to this story.
What do you think colleges should be doing to make housing more accessible to students? Let us know in the comments below.