The cost of college — tuition, books and supplies, even renting a U-Haul — isn’t cheap.
But for many local parents and students, the highest cost isn’t tuition.
It’s room and board.
That’s the case at Ohio State University, where tuition cost $10,037 last school year. Room and board totaled $11,820.
The fastest increase in the state was at the University of Dayton, where average room and board — when accounting for inflation — jumped 26 percent from 2010 to 2014, to $11,840. The university has the fourth most expensive housing cost in Ohio, up from 25th in the state in 2002.
While rising tuition garners national attention from policymakers and student advocates, the cost of living on campus quietly has had its own surge. From 2002 to 2014, annual tuition increases outpaced room and board costs in Ohio, but only slightly. And since 2010, the rate of increase for room and board — which includes food and housing — has been greater than tuition.
Higher education experts say housing costs can overwhelm families, especially low-income households.
“Financial aid already falls well short, and many students have to go with the cheapest option,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The underbelly of all this is that some students will pay for housing and have nothing left to pay for food. Or some end up couch-surfing. We’ve even got campuses knowing they have students living in their cars.”
In recent years, Ohio institutions have been under pressure to keep tuition down. That’s especially true at public universities, where the state legislature has mandated tuition freezes. As a result, officials say tuition is decelerating.
But that’s not the case with housing for school, which now runs into the five figures at several local institutions.
The cost last school year was $11,109 at Miami, $10,066 at Wright State and $9,932 at Wittenberg universities.
Alex Dupler, an 18-year-old who graduated from Fairmont High School in the spring, said he is happy with his housing situation at Ohio State, aside from living in a dorm without air conditioning.
But while the $4,000 per semester is about what he expected for a public university in-state, it is well more than what his parents paid, he noted.
“It has changed a lot,” he said. “The cost of college in general is just way too high.”
Devon Foley, a first-year business economics major at UD, said the room and board cost is similar to other “top universities” she was considering. But she knows it wasn’t easy for her parents, considering Foley is a triplet and both of her sisters also started college this fall.
“Well, I mean, it goes without saying, three kids all at once is financially challenging,” said Michael Foley, Devon’s father.
Foley said housing costs can catch parents off guard.
“When you have to come up with the money at your fingertips, you’re not as prepared as you thought you were, especially when the stock market does a shutter like last week,” he said.
Since 2004, UD has spent more than $150 million on a residential building and renovation blitz that includes $53 million on three new residential complexes: ArtStreet, Caldwell Street apartments and Marianist Hall. In 2016, the university will open the $6 million Lowes apartments.
Meanwhile, the university — which provides housing for 90 percent of its undergraduates — had a “massive” overhaul of five residence halls, including a $20 million renovation of Marycrest.
UD officials say these projects, along with a changing pricing structure, are largely responsible for the increased prices.
“It’s a value proposition,” said Bill Fischer, vice president for student development at UD. “So we’ve added things like washer and dryers, dishwashers, based on what they had back home.”
Students often look at apartments off-campus to save money. However, at many universities those costs too are increasing.
Rob Taylor, operations manager at Gaslight Property, based near the University of Cincinnati, says around 40 percent of his tenants are UC students. To attract those students he has upgraded his units, which means higher prices.
“It seems like they want to move from their parents and have the same amenities as they had back home,” Taylor said of his student tenants.
The so-called “arms race” — developing amenities to attract high-value students — goes beyond housing. Universities across the country are spending millions on athletic facilities, recreational centers and parking garages in hopes of luring the best students. Louisiana State University recently opened an $85 million lazy river.
“Most students want it all,” said Allan Blattner, president of the Columbus-based Association of College and University Housing Officers-International. “What we’re hearing from students is they want more privacy, access to cook their own meals, looking for apartment-style living. On the other side of the equation, they want community, a place they can quickly call home and make friends.
“Bottom line is that as we talk to students they want us to offer more and keep price down,” he said. “They haven’t taken time to understand how complicated each are.”
Ohio State went on its own construction boom, including four new residential halls it opened this semester and five buildings that will open next year. In total, the projects cost more than $350 million, and will house nearly 4,000 students.
“The competition for students at most colleges is fierce, especially students that can pay their own way,” said Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
But the upgrades at some local universities have helped push housing costs to levels similar to the East and West coasts. Students at Ohio State and UD pay around $200 less for room and board than students at Brown University — an Ivy League University based in Providence, R.I., a city where the cost of living is 18 percent greater than the national average.
National student housing experts say housing costs are likely to go up if schools go through a building spree, such as at UD or Ohio State, or have an older housing stock that is costly to upgrade.
Some schools, though, have bucked the trend.
The university in Ohio with the cheapest room and board cost is Cedarville, which hasn’t built at the same pace as some other area universities. When adjusted for inflation, housing costs at Cedarville actually have decreased since 2002.
Worth the cost
For Katie Klima, living near campus at UD has added greatly to her college experience.
A fourth-year student from Cleveland, Klima pays around $4,500 to live with four other students in a house located in UD’s student neighborhoods — concentrated housing units on which the university spends $2.7 million a year to maintain and upgrade.
The university says the 350-single family homes just off campus allow students to forgo the stress of dealing with an unresponsive landlord, and live in a community setting.
“It’s the only time in our life when we will live around so many people our age, and be able to walk outside and see friends, cook out and play cornhole,” Klima said.
It’s not all fun and games, however. She said the community setting also allows her to have study groups with her neighbors, something that wouldn’t be possible if she lived outside the university community.