Freshman Jacob Armas was valedictorian of his Medford, Oregon, high school and received a Pathway Oregon scholarship to cover his tuition at the University of Oregon. The only catch: the scholarship wouldn’t cover the cost of housing. So his choice to live on campus in a residence hall meant he had to take out some loans and borrow money from grandparents to cover the cost.
“[My parents and I] were thankful for the program,” Armas said. “I would have gone to school either way, but it would have been a lot more expensive.”
By fall of 2017, all freshmen will be required to live on campus, even students like Armas who come from households that can’t afford to pay for college out-of-pocket. The UO’s reason: Enrollment and graduation data for 2006-2012 show that students who lived on campus were 80 percent more likely to graduate within six years. They also had a higher mean grade point average than off-campus students. But opponents of the policy in the UO community say these benefits don’t justify the forced cost.
Though over 80 percent of UO freshmen choose on-campus living, many opt to live off campus because it’s cheaper.
First-year student Sidney White lives in the Prefontaine Apartments with three other roommates. The four-bedroom rates are individually leased at $650, meaning each roommate pays this amount rather than splitting an overall rent.
White says she spends an additional $100 on food per month and $50 for parking bringing the monthly total at her apartment complex to $800, or $9,600 a year.
In contrast, the cheapest room UO offers is a standard double. With the standard meal plan, this costs $11,430 per year — about $1,200 more expensive than the same room type was for students back in 2012.
Students’ housing decisions come down to how much benefit they get for what they’re paying, according to UO economics professor Ralph Mastromonaco. His work focuses on housing markets and why people choose to live where they live. Some students may choose to live off campus to save money, and this decision may provide greater peace of mind and less financial stress.
“Students being able to live off campus for less money increases their utility,” Mastromonaco said. “If the university is going to take that option away, they have to provide a benefit for doing so.”
On-campus residents benefit from resources offered in residence halls. Some residents have access to live-in faculty who provide students with one-on-one counseling and academic assistance.
“Getting people through in four years is a financial benefit,” said Michael Griffel, director of University Housing at the UO. “The extra costs of not graduating on time or not doing well in school can add up tremendously.”
It’s also more convenient. On-campus students can get food with meal points and have quick access to study areas. There are also built-in opportunities for community events within the residence halls where students can make friends and relax.
Other Oregon universities have had success with this policy. Oregon State University has seen increases in student GPA and retention rates since enacting their own live-on policy two years ago, OSU housing official Brian Stroup said.
There is some doubt, however, that the resources offered by the residence halls are the only thing responsible for a student’s success.
A 2010 cross-institutional study based on numbers from the National Center for Education Statistics suggested that academic performance research, like what the UO points to, often disregards the possibility that not all students will thrive in the dorm environment. It also found that the residence type had little effect on first-year students’ academic performance.
“If you’re a person who needs quiet and their own space, like me, then living off-campus is great,” White said.
Mastromonaco also suggests that this is an example of correlation not necessarily meaning causation. “If you were to tell me that students who live on campus are more likely to graduate, I would question whether housing was the reason, or if the students who choose to live on campus are simply the kind of people who graduate sooner,” Mastromonaco said.
Armas, on the other hand, said that the on-campus resources have helped him succeed in the residence halls. But he disagrees with UO’s plan to require freshmen to live in residence halls.
“I don’t think the dorms necessarily better prepare you for college,” Armas said. “Unless you already know who you are going to live with and where, it’s always a roll of the dice.”
Not all first-year students will be required to live on campus. For example, native Eugenians can just live at home. The main focus of the live-on requirement is for students coming straight to college from high school who will benefit most from help with the transition.
But UO Housing said there will be no exemption for students who cannot meet the cost. This could affect some students’ ability or desire to go to the UO.
“We are working really hard to offer a wide range of options for students with that concern,” said Anna Schmidt-Mackenzie, director of residential life and educational initiatives at the UO. She says that students often cite a total cost of about $10,000 per year for off-campus living costs.
To combat this, the university will be offering cheaper room rates starting the year of the live-on requirement. This is what other public universities have done, including OSU (which offers two reduced rates), to ease the financial strain.
“By 2017, we hope to offer a price point that matches that of luxury apartment living off campus,” Schmidt-Mackenzie said.
But comparing residence halls to luxury apartments off campus makes an assumption about what students living off-campus normally pay. Costs in an off-campus living situation are often split amongst roommates. In a dorm situation, both students in a two-person room are paying the full cost for less space.
Even from the standpoint of a luxury apartment with individual leases, the costs aren’t entirely comparable — as White’s yearly living expenses show.
“We offer a lot with our housing, and it is extremely hard to put a price tag on that,” Schmidt-Mackenzie said.
ASUO Senator Max Burns is working on a resolution opposing the housing requirement. Burns’ reasoning is that to force students to pay for all the housing costs, a few positive GPA statistics aren’t enough.
If passed, his resolution would not prevent the housing requirement but it may put pressure on the administration to consider the objections being raised.
“There’s no hidden agenda here,” Griffel said. “This really is about helping students graduate at higher rates.”
A previous version of this story reported that Pathway Oregon students are required to live on campus. This is not the case.