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Time for Action on Off-Campus Housing


Want to surprise a college-bound student? Tell them that just 16% of all college students live on campus. Let them know that the high price of rent is one of the leading contributors to student debt, and that nearly one in two undergraduates struggles with housing insecurity while in school.

They’ll probably express concern, wonder why colleges aren’t mentioning this, and get confused when they find little information about affordable off-campus housing on school websites. When applying for financial aid they probably won’t realize that – thanks to federal law â€“ their housing plans may reduce the amount of help they receive. But they will hear from college staff and peers that it’s best to live as close to campus as possible, there are only a couple of landlords renting to students, and even though those rents are high that’s just “how it is.”

Dr. Sara Goldrick-RabAs the semester progresses and they begin falling behind on rent payments and missing payments on their heating bills, students will take on an extra job or two, and apply for emergency aid (if they find out it is offered). The lucky ones will get help, while others will be evicted, joining the 8% of undergraduates who experience homelessness.

Scenarios like this one are repeated year after year all over the country, at both two and four-year colleges and universities, public and private. According to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), at every type of institution, most students live off campus. Housing is the single greatest non-tuition expense that students face, and housing insecurity is the most common type of basic needs insecurity.

Yet discussions about “choosing a college” rarely include affordable housing strategies. Living on or very near campus is framed as the most desirable situation, even though it’s also most likely the most expensive. The financial surprises that cause even the most planful students and families to take on debt often come from unexpected housing costs. And most colleges and universities only half-heartedly offer resources to help students find other places to live, with few developing partnerships with landlords who care about helping students achieve their goals.

This is a problem we can do something about. While some, including community colleges, are building more housing on campus, it’s just as important that colleges and universities partner with nonprofits and private developers to create affordable housing for their students off campus. In Portland, multiple community colleges and universities benefit from the work of College Housing Northwest, a nonprofit operating properties offering below market rent and supportive services exclusively for college students (in full disclosure, I’m collaborating with CHNW to expand their effort). In Florida, the Southern Scholarship Foundation runs rent-free cooperative living houses supporting students from a diverse array of colleges and universities across the state. And in California, Los Angeles Room and Board supports community college students with residence hall-style living located off-campus.

To stimulate more efforts, higher education and housing leaders should advocate for expanding the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit to include full-time college students. Right now they are excluded based on the false assumption that they are poor by choice. While some are pushing for a LIHTC expansion to include homeless students, I think all full-time community college students should be immediately brought into the program.

Investing in affordable public transit is also important to helping more students opt for housing that’s a bit further from campus but much more affordable. Reducing the institutional emphasis on living on campus (a convenient case made based on correlational evidence and used to drive up housing prices) will reduce competition near campus and lower prices. Basic needs insecurity is an omitted variable in those on-campus housing studies, but one thing is very clear: housing insecurity often drives students out of school. If students have to travel 15-20 minutes by bus to live further in a place they can afford, that’s their best bet.

Utilities are an important component of housing; when people struggle to pay those bills it can destabilize their housing and even lead to homelessness. There are programs available to help lower utility bills (many don’t count financial aid as income), but few students are aware. Colleges and universities should tell students about them.

Living at home while in college should be a viable option, and not one that is penalized by the financial aid system. The assumption that students who live with their parents don’t pay rent is antiquated, missing the financial realities facing even middle-class families. For example, NPSAS data show that while 40% of community college students live with their parents, that does not mean they do not incur housing costs. Among those students, 38% receive no parental support for paying any of their bills, and that rate jumps to 75% among parenting students receiving the Pell grant.

Financial aid offices ought to re-examine their cost of attendance budgets for students living at home and consider the data undergirding their assumptions. Is it really the case that students attending community colleges in the City University of New York or at the City College of San Francisco while living with their parents can survive on less than $5,000 for all their living expenses? At Malcolm X in Chicago that budget estimate is $5,500 (a huge jump from $1,500 the prior year!), and at the Community College of Philadelphia it is $7,500. Explore College Navigator to examine the numbers at colleges near you, and then consider that understating these numbers may help colleges look more affordable while also hurting students’ ability to pay their bills.

Whatever your student housing strategy, please make sure that it is tightly connected to your retention, affordability, and equity strategies. Housing is a key determinant of health and wellness as well as education. Making sure it is affordable will help maximize the college payoff for all students.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, senior fellow at Education Northwest, and an adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia.

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