Alec Weisman's

Popping the UCSD Housing Bubble

In Higher Education, Investigative Reporting on January 30, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Los Angeles – The University of California, San Diego Housing, Dining, and Hospitality (HDH) Services has made more than $250,000 in profit over the past five years through unused dining dollars, according to data released through a California Public Records Act Request. In addition, data also revealed the price per square foot for UCSD residence halls far exceeds the surrounding community.

A total of $286,421 unused dining dollars have returned to the HDH since the 2006-2007 academic year. The largest inflow of unused dining dollars occurred in the 2008-2009 academic year, when the HDH received $68,722. This increase in unused dining dollars corresponds to a mandatory meal plan increase of $650 for all students living in the dorms. In the years since, the price of many goods in campus dining halls have been inflated dramatically, which has reduced the amount of unused dining dollars received by the school from the 2008-2009 peak by more than $20,000 and $15,000 in the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 academic years, respectively.

This is profit for the self-supporting department of Housing, Dining, and Hospitality Services, which operates without any state funding and relies on students who choose to live on-campus to be conveniently located close to their classes. Although HDH claims that its meal plan is intended to be flexible, plans are not refundable and do not carry over to the next academic year. Therefore HDH keeps all dining dollars that are not used by students. Only in “unique circumstances,” such as withdrawal and participation in a Study Abroad program, can students recover a portion of their unused dining dollars.

This profit from dining dollars has been used by HDH on projects that include a fully vegan restaurant called Roots in Muir College, Meatless Mondays (where the dining halls provide vegan-only grill options), Farm 2U (where local farmers sell their goods on-campus), and cage-free eggs. However, student opinion has been repeatedly ignored in the development of these programs, as shown by a 2009 study sponsored by The Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In this survey, students who responded ranked the most important features of their dining hall experience was 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. However, the projects pursued by the UCSD HDH, such as Farm2U (locally grown food) and Roots (vegan-friendly food), scored near the bottom of the survey, with locally grown food earning a 2.69 out of 5 and vegan-friendly food earning a 2.64 out of 5.

However, it is not just the dining division of HDH that makes living on campus so expensive. Examining real estate reports for the surrounding community (University City (UTC) and La Jolla) reveals a major price disparity when compared to the price of on-campus housing, which is also managed by HDH.

For comparison, one-bedroom one-bath apartments in UTC have an average of 677 square feet and an average monthly rent of $1,350.00. A two-bedroom two-bath apartment in La Jolla has an average of 1,061 and costs an average of $3,257.27, which would be $1,628.64 per roommate. A single apartment at UCSD in the 2011-2012 academic year with an average of 675 square feet and cost of $1,356.88 is competitive with a one bedroom-one bath in the nearby area, but this is where the comparison ends. Students living on campus looking to get the most space for the cost should pay for a single. However, all doubles (two students per bedroom) and triples (three students per bedroom) are over-priced compared to their value off-campus, due to the exorbitant price per square footage for on-campus housing.

A student living in an on-campus double apartment will have to share the average of 675 square feet with a roommate and both will pay $1,256.88. Yet if the same student lived off-campus in UTC, they would share 1061 square feet and pay only $850 per month, a savings of more than $400. The only double that comes close to the square footage of a two-bedroom two-bath in La Jolla is The Village at Torrey Pines. These doubles are 979 square feet and cost $1,117.22 per roommate, but these roommates still must share a bedroom.

For a student living in an on-campus triple apartment, they will have to share the same average square footage of a double and all three roommates will pay $1,132.00. Living off-campus in UTC in a three-plus bedroom, two-plus bath, the three would share 1807 square feet and would pay only about $750 each, saving them more than $375 dollars.

When considering that UCSD housing contracts are for 8-9 months, while off-campus contracts are typically flexible and can last anywhere from 10-12 months, the savings become even more dramatic. Students living in apartments that are two-bedroom two-bath or three-plus bedrooms two-plus baths for 12 months will on average pay the same as a student living on-campus for 8 months. Although students living in La Jolla will not see the same savings with a 12-month contract, the cost of their rent would be essentially equivalent to living on-campus if they had a similar 8-month contract. The only other difference is that these students living in La Jolla would enjoy two or three times the amount of square footage in their apartments compared to their on-campus peers.

An investigation in September 2011 revealed that non-tuition expenses for UCSD students had become more expensive for students who lived on-campus for the first time during the 2010-2011 academic year. This is due to the rising cost of on-campus housing at UCSD, which increased by more than $1,000 over the last five years. Students who live off-campus this year are expected to save $800 compared to their peers who live on-campus.

This trend is not unique to UCSD however. University of California students who lived on-campus during the 2010-2011 academic year lost an average of $2,238 when compared to peers who live off-campus, while students in the California State University system saved $842 per year by living on-campus.

This disparity raises questions about why the Department of Housing, Dining, and Hospitality has been engaging in such blatant inflationary and rent-seeking policies that make living on-campus so unaffordable. Unless the motive of the administrators running the UCSD HDH is to use the profit they make from students to promote their left-of-center beliefs, they should reevaluate their priorities to make on-campus housing and dining plans more affordable. Otherwise inexpensive off-campus housing will prove to be too big of an allure for students to resist and will leave UCSD even more under-occupied than it has found itself in the current academic year.

This article was also posted in the January 2012 edition of the California Review.

Housing Rates Excel Data Sheet

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