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Freshman residency rules sometimes force students to pay prohibitive costs

Joe Luther, 22, a Georgetown senior, sits outside the townhouse where he lives off-campus. Like many universities, Georgetown requires freshmen to live in the dorms. (Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post)

Housing and meal plans at many colleges and universities now cost more than tuition, and the dozens of colleges that require students to live in a campus dorm and eat in dining halls for at least a year are adding a sometimes-prohibitive cost for those who struggle to pay for higher education.

At least 87 U.S. colleges and universities make first-year students attending college full time live on campus, according to the U.S. Department of Education. A vast majority are private schools such as Georgetown University in the District or Washington and Lee University in Virginia. But a number are state schools, including the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Check out the list of schools with freshman residency requirements

Some colleges argue that living on campus is critical for students, especially freshmen, because it allows them to fully participate in all of a school’s activities, social networks and academic support while fully immersing the student in the school’s culture. But as more students graduate from college carrying significant debt, some say the high cost of living on campus could be putting an additional burden on the students who can least afford it.

Room and board at private four-year universities costs an average of $9,678, an expense that has gone up 47 percent in the past decade, according to the College Board. At public four-year colleges, the average price is $9,130 and has increased 58 percent in the past 10 years. In a nine-month academic year, that works out to $1,014.44 a month for what is in many cases a shared room and communal dining, well above the median asking rent of $803 a month recorded by the Census Bureau.

The policies have led some students to fight back. New York University freshman Nia Mirza is asking her school for an exemption from its housing requirement; Mirza drew public attention in March when she petitioned the school to lower her $71,000 cost of attendance, claiming the price went up after she committed to early admission.

What happens when you find out a year of college costs $71,000

Though her cost-cutting bid was unsuccessful, Mirza, a 19-year-old from Pakistan, enrolled at the school’s District campus in a study-abroad program. That way, she could stay with her uncle in Leesburg, Va., and save her parents at least $11,486 in housing costs. NYU initially granted her request, but the school reversed the decision after Mirza said she would be moving in with a cousin in Arlington to be closer to campus, according to a series of e-mails reviewed by The Washington Post.

“My [financial] need was not met, and my pleas for an increase in scholarship money were turned down. So I came on a limited budget, which would be exceeded if I stay in NYU housing,” Mirza said. “The [DC] campus doesn’t even offer on-campus employment, the only option for international students to earn money in first year.”

Officials at NYU said federal law prevents them from discussing individual students. But spokesman John Beckman said that, generally speaking, "if an administrator had incorrectly told a student that living in NYU housing was not mandatory . . . we might try to honor our mistake by granting an exemption."

But, he said, “if the student’s living circumstance changed, the exemption would no longer be valid, and the student would be expected to live in NYU housing, as is clearly required.”

Beckman said the residential aspect of college is vitally important, especially for new students.

“Academic life doesn’t end at the classroom exit. The full range of student participation is an important part of the college experience,” he said. “This is even truer and more important in the case of freshmen. They are transitioning to college, and we want them to participate in the full first-year program.”

Lauren Schudde, an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said students who live on campus have more opportunities for social support, resources and integration into the college community that give them an advantage over students living off campus. Her research found that living in dorms increases student retention.

“Colleges have thought that keeping students on campus will keep them engaged,” she said. But “the policy seems outdated, because the cost has gone up so much.”

Room and board at the nation’s colleges has risen faster than the rate of inflation as schools offset the cost of renovating or replacing old housing stock, according to the Association of College and University Housing Officers.

Housing and food tends to be much higher at schools in big cities such as New York or Washington, where real estate is expensive. Yet in some of those cities, it is still cheaper to live on campus than to rent a private apartment, according to a recent study by real estate Web site Trulia.

The study found that a Columbia University student could expect to pay more than $17,000 for nine months in a shared two-bedroom apartment in Harlem, but it would cost about half as much to stay on campus. Living on Stanford University’s campus in Palo Alto, Calif. — at a cost of about $9,000 — would be cheaper than renting, which could cost more than $16,000 per student for nine months.

But at 15 of the 20 schools Trulia examined, sharing a two-bedroom off-campus apartment was cheaper than living in the dorms. At the University of Texas in Austin, living on campus runs about $11,456, while renting shared two-bedroom costs $7,200 for nine months. Student housing at the University of Washington in Seattle costs $11,310, compared with $8,528 a person in a two-bedroom share.

Joseph Luther, 22, discovered he could save money on food and housing when he moved out of the dorms at Georgetown this summer. Even though the school is located in a swanky part of the District, where rents easily top the $14,024 Georgetown charges for room and board, Luther found a cheaper option.

He and four other students are renting a four-bedroom group house in nearby Burleith, which he says is about a 10-minute walk to campus. Paying $1,200 a month and cooking his own meals is saving the college senior a few hundred dollars each month.

“I have three or four times the space I would have had at Georgetown,” said Luther, of Chicago, who is studying government and psychology. “For the value, I enjoy where I live now.”

As of this semester, Georgetown requires all full-time undergraduates to live on campus through their junior year. The change was met with resistance from students who felt the school was limiting them, said Luther, who is the president of the Georgetown University Student Association.

Officials at Georgetown say the policy, which can be waived for older, married or local students, is a guarantee that the school will provide at least three years of housing. Georgetown guarantees housing for all four years for low-income students.

“There had been a request to lessen the anxiety of finding off-campus housing and the finances associated with that burden,” Georgetown spokeswoman Rachel Pugh said. “If a student has family within a commutable range, they can request an exemption.”

Some students say extending the residency requirement locks them into an expensive situation, without the option of seeking out cheaper — or better — alternatives.

“For all the talk of students being consumers, I don’t see evidence of that with these policies,” said Frank Vernon, a fellow at the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research. “Policy is a really good way of shuttling students into certain economic decisions that don’t have the kind of agency we would think someone who is a consumer might have.”

Schudde, of the University of Texas, worries that if schools were to abandon freshman residency requirements, students from lower-income families, who are most likely to opt out of campus housing, could suffer.

“Students with financial constraints might end up having fewer engagement opportunities and being less connected to their institution than their peers who can afford to live on campus,” she said.

In the case of NYU, Beckman said the school is “trying to be mindful of cost,” but it has to “walk a fine line between giving students independence and making sure they are safe.” Not too many parents, he said, would be comfortable with their 18-year-old living on their own in the Big Apple.

As for Mirza, Beckman said, “In any case where a student comes to us with a significant need, we are always prepared to talk to them and come up with a solution that reflects their financial need while still honoring our academic judgement about how our program should be structured.” Mirza said the school is now offering her more financial aid to help cover the costs of staying on campus.

Since her program in the District is for only a year, Mirza can find her own place to live once she heads to New York for sophomore year.

“If I work on campus or find a paid internship, I’m sure I can find cheaper options in New York,” she said. “NYU is my dream school, and I will make it work.”