Alec Weisman's

Budget Woes? Live Off-Campus and Save Money

In Investigative Reporting on September 19, 2011 at 4:17 pm

Washington, DC – Students at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) now pay less if they live off-campus, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The estimated cost to live on campus has risen by more than $1,000 over the last five years. This more than thirteen percent increase is stark when compared to the cost of living off-campus. These lucky commuters will pay a mere $300 more than five years ago, a 3.2 percent increase that is below even the Consumer Price Index (CPI) inflation rate of 3.6 percent. In the 2011-2012 academic year, UCSD students who live off-campus are expected to save more than 800 dollars when compared to their on campus peers when considering all non-tuition expenses.

The 2010-2011 academic year was the first time that it was cheaper for a student to live off-campus after considering all expenses. For the 2011-2012 academic year room and board on the UCSD campus is expected to cost $11,571 on average, while commuters are expected to pay $9,669 for room and board.

Students at every college in the University of California (UC) system will find it is more expensive to live on campus. Yet as housing on the UC campuses grows more costly, students who live on campus in the California State University system and many California private universities will pay less. Students living on campus in the UC system paid on average $2,238 more than the surrounding community, whereas students saved on average $842 to live on campus in the CSU system. Several private universities saved students living on campus an average of $645 compared to students who commuted.

At the University of California, San Diego the price of room and board is determined by Housing, Dining and Hospitality Services (HDH), “a self-supporting department of UC San Diego that operates without any state funding.” The HDH sets the price of on-campus room and board as it manages all on campus housing units, meal plans, and housekeeping services. Yet the inflationary and rent-seeking policies of the HDH have contributed to making on campus housing less affordable.

For the fifth year in a row, UCSD students who live in the dorms will face another increase in the price of their mandatory minimum meal plan, as it increases to 2,908 dining dollars. These students will be receiving a meal plan that is 800 dining dollars greater than students had in 2007. Although students living in on campus apartments will only have a 100 point dining dollar increase to 2208 dining dollars, according to HDH these minimum dining plans are not meant to feed students 3 meals a day, 7 days a week.

These meal plans are “designed to be flexible for an array of lifestyles and appetites,” and therefore several options, including “buy up” exist for students who want the option of having 3,400 dining dollars. HDH also recommends that students living in the dorms should spend 87 dining dollars per week (~340 per month), students in campus apartments should spend 65 dining dollars per week (~260 per month), and students with the “buy up” option should spend 100 dining dollars per week (~400 per month). HDH promises that one dining dollar “yields one dollar of purchasing power.”

If dining dollars are the equivalent of a normal dollar then prices on-campus are heavily inflated. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the average person between the ages of 19-50 in the United States spent only $242 on food per month in peak months of the academic year (November, February, May). In 2010-2011, only the largest consumers were expected to spend close to the equivalent dining dollar value as students in the dorms ($340.33 for men, $300.60 for women), while thrifty consumers were expected to spend far less ($172.23 for men, $153.17 for women).

This $800 meal plan increase for students living in the dorms is drastically higher than average American food spending, which has only increased by $10-$20 dollars in the face of a world food price crisis that has been ongoing since 2007. HDH’s policy enables students to have both leftover dining dollars (which are kept by the school if they are unused) and inflated food prices on-campus due to their monopoly of the dining halls (that justify increasing the minimum rate for meal plans).

So how has HDH been spending the profit that they have made off of the students? Not very well, according to a 2009 study sponsored by The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS), which is part of the University of California Santa Cruz. UCSD students were asked to rate their dining experience as well as if they would be willing to pay more for certain foods or foods with a reduced environmental impact. Only 30% of students surveyed said the UCSD dining experience reflected their food values.

Students surveyed responded that the most important features for dining hall food are flavor, safety, and variety, rating flavor a 4.62 out 5 on importance, variety a 4.48 out of 5, and safety a 4.47 out of 5. Students also heavily supported increasing nutritional options and reducing the price. In contrast, locally grown food and vegan-friendly food scored at the bottom of students priority list, with locally grown food earning a 2.69 out of 5 and vegan-friendly food earning a 2.64 out of 5.

Although HDH claims that “making the best use of natural resources, minimizing negative impact on our environment, and satisfying our customers are our main objectives,” HDH does not meet their students’ demands. In the last three years, the emphasis of the Housing, Dining and Hospitality Services has been to provide students with programs they do not particularly care about. These include Meatless Mondays, where the dining halls provide only vegan grill options, Farm 2U, where local farmers sell their goods on-campus, and cage-free eggs. The only major student concern that HDH has actually addressed came from their dietician, who has made nutrition a priority.

According to the Director of UCSD’s Housing, Dining and Hospitality Services, Mark Cunningham, “our intent in the design of our housing and dining program is not to burden students with unnecessary costs.” Although HDH does not keep records on hand about how many meal points are left over each year, Cunningham said, “I believe that students do an excellent job managing their dining dollars and the vast majority spend down to $0.00 or very close to it because they understand that this is their money and they manage those dollars well, albeit there’s no perfect meal plan so there are always variances.” However, this does not consider that the students who are forced to spend their leftover meal points on junk food would rather see their unused dining dollars refunded to their student accounts.

There can be no perfect meal plan because the minimum plan is mandatory. When students are forced to use all their dining dollars or to lose them, waste and inefficient spending is encouraged. With their priority on green and sustainable options, the UCSD HDH can continue to ignore student preferences, at the expense of both greater on-campus affordability and sustainability.

***

Note: This article has been reposted in two parts on the Young America’s Foundation Blog: Part 1 and Part 2.

Attached is the excel spreadsheet of UC Costs with all data used in this report.

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