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Blog Post · December 20, 2017

High Housing Costs Hurt College Affordability

photo - Young Woman Studying on Bed in Dormitory

A majority of Californians say affordability is a problem in the state’s public colleges and universities, according to the PPIC Statewide Survey. In addition, three-quarters of residents in the survey agree that the price of college prevents students who are qualified and motivated from going to college. Not surprisingly, state leaders are exploring new strategies to help students and families better cope with college costs. Most current approaches, such as state and institutional financial aid, focus primarily on tuition relief. This makes sense, as tuition more than doubled at California universities from 2006 to 2012—and is on the rise again.

However, housing costs also play a significant role in the total cost of attending college. Californians are well aware of the issue: 85% of residents in the PPIC survey say colleges and universities should do more to make sure that all students have affordable housing options. Indeed, even with the rapid increases in tuition, living costs for many students exceed tuition at California’s public institutions—the state’s community colleges, California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC). Average room and board costs also differ substantially across the three systems, from $8,509 per year at the community colleges to $13,774 at UC.

These differences in costs are related to whether students live on campus, off campus on their own, or off campus with family. Estimated average costs of housing and food for students living on campus top $13,000 per year, and those living off campus pay an average of $10,000 to $13,000 in room and board. The costs associated with living with family are not estimated in the available federal data, but most college websites suggest these costs range from $5,000 to $6,000—about half the cost of living on or off campus.

Students’ housing choices also partially depend on where they go to school. Only nine cities in California have UC campuses (excluding UCSF which only enrolls graduate students), and most UC freshmen live on campus in their first year. Historically, the 113 community colleges and 23 CSU campuses have been seen as local and low-cost options. Indeed, both systems show about 30% or more of freshmen living with their families, which helps keep average room and board costs lower than at UC. But it is worth noting that the share of CSU freshmen living on campus may grow. More dorms are being built on CSU campuses as administrators see on-campus housing as a strategy to increase graduation rates. Data on students’ living arrangements are based on institutional reporting on freshmen who receive some sort of federal financial aid, which includes more than 60% of students at most institutions.

As state leaders reexamine the goals in the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education and consider changes to financial aid, they should take into account the role that living costs play in the total cost of education.

Learn moreRead the PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Higher Education
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center


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