UC Merced pricier than UCLA? The surprising cost to live on campus
This fall, as crazy as it sounds, it will be more expensive to live on campus at UC Riverside than at UCLA, and pricier to bunk in the dorms at UC Merced in the Central Valley than at UC San Diego in tony La Jolla.
CSU Fullerton will charge $2,500 more than Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. And while it’s no shock that room-and-board at UC Berkeley will cost more than any other public university in the Golden State, the second-most expensive school for housing is hardly a household name — or located in a hot rental market: It’s CSU Channel Islands in the Ventura County town of Camarillo.
A new analysis of university room-and-board costs by this news organization shows the price of living on campus is often out-of-whack with local housing costs and is becoming one of the prime factors in the runaway cost of attending a four-year college.
“That is really surprising,” said Christopher Palmer, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business who studies housing markets and proves even with a PhD in economics, it’s tough figuring out how California’s universities calculate housing costs.
Universities are under intense pressure to hold the line on tuition hikes, and the tuition increases set to hit both University of California and California State University students this fall have been widely debated. But room-and-board costs receive far less scrutiny.
Yet in the last 10 years, housing costs at UC campuses have jumped some 30 percent, making it increasingly difficult for some low-income students to earn a degree. “It’s impacting students’ and families’ ability to pay for college,” said Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, who has backed several proposals in Sacramento recently aimed at helping students pay not only for tuition, but housing and dining costs, during college.
One of the most puzzling things about housing costs is how some universities have become so out-of-sync compared to the local market. UC Merced, the system’s least popular school, has the biggest gap between on-campus and off-campus living costs: nearly $8,000. It costs nearly twice as much to live on campus as it does to rent an apartment nearby.
UC Merced, opened in 2005, is among the more expensive of the UC schools when it comes to on-campus housing. (Courtesy of UC Merced)
While UC tuition is the same across the system, each campus sets its own prices for everything else from housing to printing costs, which means that a UC diploma can have a variety of price tags.
Officials at UC Merced say that as the school has grown, it’s had to add new buildings and services for students living on campus. “So while the off-campus market fluctuates based on the local real estate market, on-campus rates are driven more by the cost to maintain and expand the programs offered to support our students,” said Brenda Ortiz, a spokeswoman for the campus.
Colleges also calculate average room-and-board costs slightly differently, and students can choose from several living and dining plans.
Still the numbers underscore a persistent and growing problem: Unpredictable and rising living expenses are pricing some students out of higher education.
Systemwide, the average cost of living on campus next year will be $15,396, up about 6 percent from $14,520 this year, according to preliminary figures.
Berkeley’s on-campus living costs are set to be higher than any of other four-year public university in the state: $17,549, up more than $1,000 from $16,389.
Zach Gamlieli, Berkeley Student Cooperative President, left, talks with Tom Edmondson, a former co-op resident, in a double room at Casa Zimbabwe in Berkeley, Calif. on Wednesday, May 24, 2017. Casa Zimbabwe is one of the 20 affordable housing communities operated by the Berkeley Student Cooperative. (Kristopher Skinner/Bay Area News Group)
Rising housing costs are also plaguing Santa Cruz students. At $16,055 next year, on-campus living costs will be the fourth highest after Berkeley, CSU Channel Islands and Davis, and nearly a thousand dollars more than this year.
But students do it because, in a beach town that seems to care more about attracting tourists than helping young people earn a degree, “it is really difficult to find housing off-campus,” said Judith Gutierrez, a member of the Santa Cruz Student Union Assembly. This year, more than half of Santa Cruz’s students lived on campus compared to less than a quarter of Davis students.
Sometimes, it’s required. Most of the UCs and CSUs don’t mandate that students live in the dorms but at San Jose State, freshmen from more than 30 miles away have to live on campus as part of an attempt to boost retention and graduation rates. Studies show that students who live on campus are more engaged in campus life and do better in school. At San Jose State, that will cost more than $15,500 next year.
Hoping to ease the impact, lawmakers in Sacramento introduced a budget proposal in March to cover more living costs for the state’s college students.
“Research shows more and more that students are graduating with all this debt not because of high tuition,” said Assemblyman McCarty, one of the key backers of the plan. “The reality is these huge debt loads are driven by non-tuition costs.”
Zach Gamlieli is one semester from a Cal diploma. But if it weren’t for Casa Zimbabwe, the off-campus student cooperative where he pays about $7,000 to live, the Los Angeles native would have a much different story. “It’s kept me in school,” he said. “I was probably going to have to leave school and go back to work.”