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Updated: Dec 21, 2023

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Swimming Pools and Granite Countertops: How College Dorms Got So Expensive

Housing is one of the biggest drivers of rising college costs in the U.S.—for new luxury suites as well as old windowless rooms

By Melissa Korn, and Shane Shifflett, WSJ

Dec. 20, 2023

Arizona State University students will pay more than $9,600 this year to live in a shared bedroom at Manzanita Hall, a 15-story dorm on the edge of campus with an exterior that looks like a honeycomb.

About a decade ago, a private developer took over Manzanita and gave it a $50 million refresh, including new lounges, an upgraded lobby and community kitchens. Then the cost of living there shot up.

Now, after multiple increases, ASU students pay about 80% more than what Sun Devils paid to live in the building about 20 years ago, adjusted for inflation.

Housing is one of the biggest drivers of rising college prices in the U.S., fueling the $1.6 trillion federal student loan crisis, a Wall Street Journal investigation found. Though school administrators often boast of keeping tuition in check as a sign they’re sensitive to students’ financial concerns, they rarely rein in costs for living on campus.

The Journal examined the price of residence halls going back roughly two decades at 12 public universities around the country. The least expensive bed increased by a median of 70% in today’s dollars.

At Binghamton University in New York, the price for the cheapest option more than doubled over that span, and now tops $10,000 for two semesters in a shared room.

Binghamton spokesman Ryan Yarosh said the housing options changed dramatically in that time, with 12 new residence halls and significant upgrades to others, more private bedrooms, and hundreds more staff to help with student mental health.

While rental prices rose nationwide in this period, an analysis of Census data shows median rates increased at a slower pace in the areas immediately around all 12 schools than the pace for the least expensive options on those campuses.

Many schools demolished older, cheaper residence halls, switching out double-occupancy rooms and shared hallway bathrooms for more private accommodations with communal amenities such as study lounges, fitness centers and swimming pools. The median increase for the most expensive housing offering at the 12 schools was 114%, adjusted for inflation.

Many of these luxury dorms were built and run by private developers. The schools often receive a cut of the rent revenue, making the dorms a potential gold mine.

ASU had the biggest jump in rates among the dozen schools for top-end housing, nearly tripling its most expensive option over two decades to around $20,700 for this academic year.

The university said its housing options are pricier because it receives minimal state funding and needs to provide beds to a surging population of students in a hot real-estate market.

Schools also pushed up the price of the remaining older dorms, some of which are spartan. Clemson University, in South Carolina, charges 35% more than 2001-2002, inflation adjusted, to stay for two semesters in a windowless room in a dorm from the late 1960s.

Reddit posts warn prospective students about how to cope with those interior rooms, which now cost more than $5,400 for the school year: Buy powerful alarm clocks because the lack of sunshine will throw off sleeping patterns. Invest in a light-therapy lamp that imitates natural light.

Clemson says it’s renovating the buildings that have windowless rooms, with new floor plans including study rooms and kitchen spaces.

Housing prices zoomed past tuition at several schools. At the University of Arkansas, which serves students in one of the nation’s poorest states, inflation-adjusted tuition rose by 50% over the past two decades, while the cheapest dorm room increased by 75%.

Stephanie Moreland pulled $4,000 from her 401(k) to pay the remaining charges on her son’s bill at Arkansas for this fall and the coming spring. The son, currently a freshman, also got a federal grant for low-income students, received scholarships and maxed out his federal student loans. He lives in the least expensive dorm option on campus, where two semesters in a shared room runs more than $6,800.

“It wasn’t even his classes that cost the most. It was the housing and food card that made the balance so high,” Moreland said.

Arkansas spokesman John Thomas said the school tries to keep costs as low as possible as it updates its offerings to accommodate new student preferences. He also said students report the rates to be reasonable compared with the local market.

Many schools defend their patterns of boosting the quality and cost of housing, even as they often require students to live on campus, at least for some years of attendance. They say students who live on campus perform better.

Administrators say that students—particularly wealthy ones who can pay full price for college—demand better amenities than dorms offered to previous generations. The schools also say they must compete with opulent off-campus options.

Arizona State University’s Manzanita Hall.

“I think the world has changed in 20 years as it relates to safety, as it relates to Wi-Fi, as it relates to a desire to have more than just a box, 12-by-15, with two mattresses and two desks and two lamps,” said Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski.

Conversations around college costs largely center on tuition and fees, and schools often give discounts to relieve the cost of tuition. But housing and dining can be an even bigger expense—and schools tend to be much stingier with financial aid there.

“The magnifying glass isn’t on housing yet,” said Joshua Travis Brown, an assistant professor of education at Johns Hopkins University who has studied campus living trends.

Expanding options

The median top-tier public research university reported a 45% increase in housing costs between 2001-2002 and 2022-23, adjusting for inflation, the Journal found. Those figures come from data reported to the federal government by about two-thirds of the roughly 100 such schools.

The data likely underestimate the extent of the price hikes. The Education Department historically required that schools report the “typical” housing cost for a student who shares a room with one other person—a term the schools had some leeway to define. Those figures don’t reflect the wide range of prices each school may charge for dorms, suites and apartment-style setups and sometimes represent the cheapest option, the Journal found.

The Journal’s analysis focused on a dozen prominent universities with sizable on-campus populations and where Education Department data indicated large increases in room-and-board costs from two decades ago. The Journal looked at the cheapest and most expensive housing available for each time period, adjusted for inflation.

Two decades ago, living in the most expensive room at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, for an academic year cost the equivalent of about $5,900 in today’s dollars. That amount won’t buy a student even the cheapest bed at UMass this school year.

One student there, Shannon Moore, has cerebral palsy and needs to live in a first-floor room. Moore, now a junior, asked for a shared bedroom in the honors dorm her first year to help keep her debt low. She was assigned a single instead, which in honors housing ran about $10,900 that year.

Her annual housing costs have since risen, in part because upperclassmen in honors housing can choose only suites or apartment-style setups rather than less expensive hallway rooms. This semester her share of an on-campus apartment costs nearly $7,300. That’s almost half her semester’s bill for tuition, room and meal plan, after scholarships.

Moore, 21 years old, has a federal student loan balance of $16,800. “It’s the only way that I can be here right now and get this education,” she said.

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski cited increased labor costs as one reason housing has become more expensive. He also said the university’s aging residence halls—mostly built between 1951 and 1975—require tens of millions of dollars each year in replacements and upgrades.

In April, UMass informed students that it wouldn’t have enough room for hundreds of students who wanted to live on campus this school year and they’d need to find their own spots off campus.

About 100 UMass students staged a sleepout that month, setting up tents on a central quad to protest the lack of affordable campus housing. The organizers were particularly furious that rather than build more low-cost options on campus, the university leased out land to a private developer to build apartments.

UMass got a $20 million upfront payment for the deal. Students got apartments priced from about $1,500 a month, or $18,000 for the 12-month contract.

While technically on campus land, and home to a university-operated cafe and bouldering wall, the apartment complex isn’t managed by university housing. The school warns students on its website that it has no control over the prices charged.

Blaguszewski, the UMass spokesman, said the university does get to sign off on any rate hikes there above 5%.

Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge makes clear on its website that Nicholson Gateway isn’t a run-of-the-mill dorm.

The five-year-old complex for upperclassmen offers double or queen-sized beds, garbage disposals, granite countertops, private bathrooms and lounges with views of Tiger Stadium. Beds there cost between $10,300 and $16,700 per person for two semesters. That’s in addition to the published tuition and fees of nearly $12,000 for 2023-24 for in-state students.

“The focus at Nicholson Gateway was not to be luxurious, but to provide amenities that are attractive to students but also focused on student success,” said LSU spokeswoman Kristine Sanders, noting that the complex has study areas on each floor. She said Nicholson Gateway doesn’t have pools or tanning rooms like some off-campus spots, and granite is more resilient than laminate.

Nicholson is also designed to be a moneymaker.

LSU’s foundation partnered with a private developer in 2016 to build the new complex, which includes 1,500 beds as well as parking and retail space. Two million dollars in revenue goes to the foundation each year, to hire additional fundraisers and cover other expenses, contract documents show. Other funds are reinvested for future housing projects, including new construction and renovations, Sanders said.

Universities increasingly partner with private developers to construct and manage the residence halls on school land, saying it’s an appealing way to get more beds on campus, quickly, without tying up their own balance sheets or issuing bonds.

The University of Kentucky replaced nearly all its on-campus housing over the past decade with help from a private developer, Education Realty Trust. The company financed and built more than a dozen new residence halls, with features including a rooftop terrace, outdoor fireplace and space in many for full-size beds. The least expensive option on campus increased by more than 75% in today’s dollars, to nearly $8,300 this school year.

Kentucky spokesman Jay Blanton said there are caps on how much the developer can raise rates each year, “to ensure they continue to remain reasonable compared to the local market.” Education Realty Trust declined to comment.

ASU also has been among the most prolific participants in these building deals, known as public-private partnerships. The school teamed up with American Campus Communities, bought by private-equity firm Blackstone in 2022, to build more than 8,000 beds in the past 17 years.

Last year alone, ASU earned more than $4 million from ACC for student housing ground leases in Tempe, Arizona Board of Regents documents show. The university also gets a share of rental revenue for some of the residence halls.

One housing option at Clemson University is an interior room with no windows, costing more than $5,400. For around $7,800, students can share an apartment in Calhoun Courts.

“The public-private partnership model allows us to expand our housing, while then directing our capital investments toward cutting-edge academic facilities and other buildings for the benefit of our growing student body,” said ASU spokeswoman Nikki Ripley.

Gina Cowart, a spokeswoman for ACC, said the solution to rising costs is to add more housing supply. “We are incredibly proud to have invested more than $630 million on ASU’s Tempe campus,” she said. As for Manzanita Hall, Cowart said ACC spent millions of dollars to preserve more than 800 housing units there that were in need of investment and repair.

A Blackstone spokeswoman said Manzanita’s cost increases are lower than those in the surrounding area, citing internal data. A Wall Street Journal analysis of census tracts within two miles of ASU’s campus show rents including utilities increased by less than 12% during the same period after adjusting for inflation. The increase was about 42% for all of Tempe.

Michael Crow, ASU’s president, has pledged annual in-state tuition increases of no more than 3% for the past decade, and at least through the 2028-29 school year. Housing rates, though, can be hiked by up to 10% a year.

“Living in a residence hall is a way to know your costs and contain your costs in every possible way,” Crow said at a March 2022 student forum. Crow declined to comment, through a spokeswoman.

Kaleigh Feuerstein, who graduated from ASU in 2021, paid for her own college bills and found the best way to contain her costs was to move off campus as quickly as possible. A member of ASU’s honors college, she spent about $11,000 in today’s dollars for a spot in a four-bedroom suite in honors housing for her first two semesters.

Second-year honors students are expected to live in a complex known as Vista Del Sol, which features a movie theater and swimming pool. Prices there start at around $10,100 this year and can cost double for some apartment beds. Feuerstein appealed for, and got, an exemption to move back home to Chandler, Ariz., about 30 minutes away.

“In my opinion it’s a huge barrier to entry for a lot of really smart students,” said Feuerstein, now 25 and a strategist at a marketing agency in Chicago. “They don’t take into account the financial burden, especially for students who are paying on their own.”

Older buildings

Rate hikes aren’t just due to nicer digs. Students are often paying thousands more for fairly basic housing.

A 2006 housing plan at University of Arkansas flagged two 1960s high-rises, Yocum Hall and Humphreys Hall, as hilltop eyesores ripe for demolition. Both are still in use, with some upgrades. Adjusted for inflation, their prices for shared rooms have increased by more than 70% since the 2001-02 school year. Students pay between $7,000 and $8,700 for roughly 14-by-10-foot rooms—a space that’s significantly smaller than a single-car garage.

This year, 20-year-old Devereaux moved into an upscale apartment building just off campus, less than a half mile from his old dorm. His private bedroom and bathroom in a four-person apartment, with a pool, computer center, and in-unit laundry, runs about $7,900 for a 12-month lease—13% less than he paid for nine months in campus housing.

Most first-year Arkansas students are required to live on campus. Arkansas spokesman John Thomas said retention rates for those in residence halls have been 8% to 11% higher in recent years than for those who live off campus, and that campus housing has the benefits of proximity to classes, dining and social activities.

The school says on its website that it’s unlikely to let students out of contracts for financial reasons, and that loans are a “reasonable means to meet responsibilities of the housing contract.”

Rising costs

Administrators at a number of universities say they have to increase housing prices to cover operating expenses and building upkeep. At most public universities, housing and dining are expected to pay their own bills, without subsidies from the state or tuition dollars.

Yet some schools’ housing fees bring in far more than they’d need to break even.

At Clemson, housing revenue surpassed expenses by at least $17 million in each of the prior five years, university financial records show.

“The goal is always for there to be an additional amount that is left over, and that goes straight into our housing improvement fund,” said Kathy Hobgood, associate vice president for auxiliary enterprises at Clemson. She said the school tapped that fund to repair pipes after an unexpected deep freeze last year and will use it to pay for the upcoming renovation of a high-rise dorm.

“Housing does throw an unknown into the total cost,” said Joann Grimaldi, who has a son at Clemson and a daughter at Virginia Tech. She and her husband calculated the potential high and low housing costs during the college search, but couldn’t predict where their kids’ rooms would fall on the spectrum. “You really do go in blind,” she said.

Their son was assigned to one of the less expensive rooms on campus his freshman year, in 2019, but the total tab—after a $10,000 scholarship—was still more than $38,000.

He stayed on campus sophomore year, paying more to be in a suite. Grimaldi said her daughter, meanwhile, lucked out by pairing up with a student who steered them toward low-cost options at Virginia Tech.

Both of Grimaldi’s children have since moved off campus.

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