What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Soaring housing costs stretch already-strapped college students

For many college students, living costs may exceed the cost of tuition and fees, as affordable housing options are becoming increasingly hard to find. Some find they struggle with debt, or paying for meals; others are at risk for homelessness. As part of our series Rethinking College, Hari Sreenivasan travels to Philadelphia to see how students there are coping.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    The burden of student debt is getting more attention in this election cycle.

    One key part of the problem is the rising cost of student housing. Between 1989 and 2017, room and board on and off campuses went up by more than 82 percent at four-year public universities.

    Correspondent Hari Sreenivasan recently traveled to Philadelphia to see how college students there are coping with housing costs.

    It's the latest in our special series on Rethinking College and part of our regular education segment, Making the Grade.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Badia Weeks loves spending time in the pool with her young students. The 19-year-old teaches swim lessons five days a week while attending Philadelphia's Temple University.

    She's a junior majoring in exercise and sports medicine. Weeks is doing well academically. She has a 3.5 GPA. But outside of the classroom, she's struggling.

  • Badia Weeks:

    For this apartment, it's about $6,000 a semester, which, honestly, I feel like isn't worth what I get. Me and my roommate both pay that, so it's like we're paying $1,500 a month each.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The two-bedroom, one-bath apartment was assigned to her by Temple after she transferred last spring from a nearby private college.

    Weeks, who is on her own financially, covers her tuition through scholarships and her part-time wages. She says she tried hard to get into a cheaper apartment near campus, but didn't have any luck.

    Affordable housing options are becoming increasingly hard to find. Apartment rents in Philadelphia have gone up 25 percent over the past decade. So, several months ago, she took out a private loan for $5,000 to pay for her housing.

  • Badia Weeks:

    It's upsetting. Having to be in debt just to live on campus, I feel like is a little ridiculous.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    She's not the only one going into debt for housing. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development analysis found that, for many students, living costs exceed and even dwarf the cost of tuition and fees.

  • Sara Goldrick-Rab:

    It's a very serious problem.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple who studies housing costs.

  • Sara Goldrick-Rab:

    We estimate that approximately one in two undergraduates is finding their housing to be unaffordable.

    The most typical thing that we will hear is a student who says, I'm going to have trouble paying my rent this month. They don't necessarily eat every day. Or they aren't able to come to class every day because they cut the money that they would have spent, let's say, on gas for the car or on the subway.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Our perception of college is, you know, students living in a building, ivy-covered walls.

    That's not the norm.

  • Sara Goldrick-Rab:

    That is vanishingly rare in today's colleges and universities, to the point that only about 12 percent to 13 percent of the nation's undergraduates actually reside on a college campus.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Last year, Goldrick-Rab founded The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a research center dedicated to finding solutions for the financial and logistical barriers that prevent students from graduating.

    At Temple, there are efforts to assist food-insecure students, and a university care team helps connect students in a housing crisis to emergency funding.

  • Woman:

    We have been able to support them also then with the resources of our counseling center.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    But one of the biggest challenges here, and at many other universities, is the lack of affordable housing on campus.

    Goldrick-Rab says public colleges and universities, facing budget cuts, see food and housing as revenue streams.

  • Sara Goldrick-Rab:

    If you begin to see housing as a profit center, then you begin to charge students more and more simply because you can.

    The other thing is that a growing number of schools are really trying to attract a certain kind of student and family. It's a family with a lot more disposable income, and it's a family that is going to pay more tuition with less financial aid.

    So the residence hall rooms for students are larger than they used to be. The amenities are more substantial.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    It's a similar story off-campus. New luxury buildings are catering to wealthier students around Temple and other college campuses around the country. But not everyone can afford that kind of living experience.

    One out of four people in the city of Philadelphia live below the poverty line, so you would think this would be an affordable place to live.

    Philadelphia also has another distinction, however, which is the second most number of colleges and universities of any city in the nation. And that makes affordable housing hard to come by, whether you're at a big four-year university or even a two-year community college.

    Just steps away from downtown, 26,000 students attend the Community College of Philadelphia. Like most two-year schools, housing is not offered. A 2018 study by Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues found nearly 20 percent of the school's students were experiencing homelessness, and more than half were housing insecure.

  • Thomas:

    Everything. I'm not ashamed to say that, shelters, couch surfing. And it's been things that I had to do.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Thomas, who prefers to go only by his first name, is one of those without a consistent roof over his head. He's a first-year student who works in the campus bookshop, but says he can't save enough to get an apartment.

  • Thomas:

    The deposit is unreal. The deposit is three times the rent. I can't even manage the one-time rent that I'm trying to manage from work, let alone have the money to save for it. It just isn't practical.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A new program, in an old convent, hopes to help at-risk students like Thomas.

  • Sandra Guillory:

    So this will be a typical room. Students will have fully furnished beds, desks, dressers, and they all have their shared sink with shared bathrooms.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Sandra Guillory is the Philadelphia director of Depaul USA, a nonprofit focused on homelessness. They plan to rehab this convent to house 24 students from colleges across Philadelphia. Students will be asked to pay $150 a month.

  • Sandra Guillory:

    Our top priorities are students in their final years of school, so third, fourth, fifth, years of school. They have the most student loan debt, and if they dropped out of school today, they would have that debt, and no degree, and they'd be worse off than if they had never gone to school.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The $17,000 it will cost to house and feed each student per year will be split between the students, the city of Philadelphia and private donations.

  • Sandra Guillory:

    If we can get them to graduate, they will never have to worry about homelessness hopefully ever again, poverty. Their children won't have to worry about this.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For her part, Temple's Badia Weeks is hoping to squeeze in more hours in the pool this semester, so she can save up and possibly avoid another housing loan next semester.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Hari Sreenivasan in Philadelphia.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, by the way, the new housing program at the old convent is expected to open to students in January.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest