UT greets its entering students with a shell game. Where to find a home?
Nicholas Parke, 21, and Hunain Dada, 22, said the biggest housing issue they faced when they arrived on campus was the lack of information about off-campus options-a solution made attractive by limited budgets and faced by about 7,000 first-time freshmen each summer and fall semester.
They found Riverside Drive-a residential complex say realtors, but a sort of student ghetto really-through word of mouth. A bit of a distance, but what's five miles, they thought.
Should that detour a student's life?
But they found that living on Riverside Drive lead to multiple consequences besides monetary cost. Those seriously threaten the academic opportunity and educational enrichment and advancement that living on-campus offers. In many ways, economic class shapes the college experience. And with a proposed tuition increase, that divide will widen.
Academic demands, extra-curricular activities, organizational options and countless on-campus events provide just a smattering of reasons why students can reap reward by simply being on university grounds. Library resources, networking during professors' office hours and laboratory use present even more opportunity for students.
Potential centers on the campus, and it cannot be emphasized enough. But when push comes to shove, the commute to get there can intrude and limit.
Campus proximity brings obvious perks. Whether a late night run to the library or meeting on campus for a group project demands a student's attention, a ten minute walk or a three minute bike ride suffices. Students living on Riverside-where the rent is significantly cheaper-lose this advantage.
The minimal cost of campus dormitories has increased every year since 1990 by an average of 4.8%, according to the UT Division of Housing and Food Service (DHFS). Students in double occupancy dormitories pay a shade under $8,000 for the nine-month academic session. Single occupancy rooms cost almost $9,500. With deviations between dormitories-like cost, style and location-UT's Office of Information Management and Analysis (IMA) reports the average cost of university housing to be $9,600.
These prices include $1,600 worth for food from measly restaurants and dining halls around campus, a monthly value of $180. Students may end up paying about $875 a month for room and board.
Apartment rates in West Campus cost even more with huge variations. An individual bedroom at complexes like The Block, Quarters and Jefferson 26 soar above $1,000 without food. These newer communities provide extra services and amenities like rooftop gardens, tanning beds and concierge services, at the same time promoting close proximity to campus. Older and less modernized establishments in the same area may have a bedroom costing at least $550. Sharing a bedroom, a common strategy for high-cost living, chips a healthy chunk out of rent, but eliminates the comfort of private space.
Then these are the elites. According to the Office of the Dean of Students, the costs of Greek in-house living ranges from $7,600 to $11,000 for nine months. That's for room and board-not counting any additional fees like parking or social events.
The increasing costs of living carve a class gap that ultimately pushes away low-budget students.
Riverside offers a student experience that attacks problems of affordability. Rent may come as cheap as $450 per person in a four bedroom apartment with a room to oneself.
But the farther away, the higher the cost of lost advantages.
Dada, a graduate student, who lived on Riverside for three years, estimated his monthly expenditures at least $900-which included room and board, utilities, and gas for commutes. But he had to add in auto insurance, which varies among drivers, parking--$100 a semester for a student permit-and soon the economic margin of advantage shrinks.
In hind sight, Dada said he recommends dorm living on-campus to meet new people, but said sharing a room in West Campus to split rent is worth the increased costs.
"It is probably worth paying the premium to live close to campus to experience the college lifestyle and take advantage of what the campus has to offer," he said.
Time is finite and it favors the on-campus student.
Those selecting Riverside must consider this as well. One drives in swift time during off-peak hours-at 11 p.m. It might take less than then minutes to get to campus. Crawling along at 5 p.m. can add another 15. And finding parking on or near campus can ruin a day.
The campus shuttle offers an option, but it ties students to its schedule. Capital Metro's UT Shuttle Service-free and reserved for UT patrons-runs 12 routes away from campus on weekdays, but reduces its service in the evenings to just four combined routes. Although weekday service is ample, Sundays curtail the schedule. Shuttles do not run on Saturdays or holidays.
The Crossing Place and North Riverside routes, two of the most in demand east of the interstate, provide service to about 3,500 and 3,300 students respectively each weekday. This accounts for roughly 13% of the fall 2009 enrollment. All told, of the 50,000 UT students, Capital Metro reports over 30,000 of them depend on shuttle services every day.
After one totes up all the obvious expenses come the unforeseen that add unexpected costs. The thinner the budget, the tighter the constraints.
"Riverside was the most reasonable option in terms of saving some money on rent," Dada said. "Three of my good friends were living with me, so it was fine being a little far off campus."
"Apartments [on Riverside] are fully furnished and are very affordable," Dada said. "Those two reasons are probably two major criteria when students are looking for housing. It is a great bang for the buck."
Dada, who is enrolled in McCombs' accounting program, said Riverside sometimes suffers from a worse reputation than deserved because of the threat of crime and distance from campus. But he hasn't had any problems and thinks a lot of this is exaggerated. However, according to Spotcrime.com, Riverside Drive-and its surrounding areas-has the largest cluster of burglary reports in Central Austin. There are reports of theft and assault as well.
No matter the concern, he says, living close to campus has unique advantages. "Socially, you have more friends nearby," he said. "You can walk to campus and reap the benefits from being close to campus. There is less frustration and worry [from having to commute]."
"I never really studied too much at home in Riverside," Dada said. "I did my studying on campus. Riverside is only a seven minute drive when there's no traffic, but just the hassle of having to commute takes a toll." But during the day, I-35-a direct route from Riverside to campus-traffic moves at a fast clip.
Dada said he had to leave for class at least 20 minutes beforehand, regardless of whether he took the shuttle or drove. But there was never a guarantee he'd find easy parking if he drove. "You also have to think about time spent walking to the bus stop and waiting for the bus," he said.
Dada said he moved closer and now lives in West Campus in part because trying to get to classes on time adds pressure and frustration. "The commute is the biggest disadvantage of Riverside," he said, noting that it is good to be closer to friends and to campus. "It is so much more convenient."
Parke, a government major, has lived on Riverside for two years and shares Dada's assessment. He chose Riverside because the rent was kinder to his budget and the apartments fully furnished. Some of Parke's friends also moved to Riverside, making his decision appealing.
Parke pays $485 a month rent in a three bedroom apartment. He says along with more obvious advantages, he enjoys good proximity to the bus route to campus and the abundance of food options close by. But being away from campus definitely has its setbacks.
Parke said he uses the shuttle except on days when he works after class; then he drives.
"The bus schedule is pretty effective," he said, "and it usually has a bus running every five to ten minutes [on weekdays]. It takes about 20 minutes, even during rush hour." Parke also noted that the buses get crowded in the morning and late afternoon when student demand is at its highest. That's when the commute packs its biggest blow.
Whether one drives or takes the bus, he said, "It usually takes about the same amount of time," he said. But finding a parking spot and walking to class takes the longest.
According to annual reports from UT's Parking and Transportation Services (PTS), the University oversells permits calculating the number of people who come for only segments of time. In the 2007-2008 academic year, the PTS reported more than twice the number of permits sold than available spaces-a ratio of 34,400 permits for 15,727 spaces.
That's an improvement over two years ago, when PTS sold almost 7,000 "C" student parking permits for 888 student parking spots. Things improve somewhat if a commuter will dish out more cash to use a parking garage-close to $300 for a single-semester permit. Good luck finding a vacant spot there.
The PTS said shuttle ridership steadily decreased from 7.5 million in the 2003-2004 academic year to 5.3 million by 2008. Robert Codner, Capital Metro's liaison to UT, oversees the daily operation of UT's Shuttle Service. "More and more students are riding Capital Metro's fixed route service, the mainline routes," he said. "Students have realized they are not limited to housing just along the UT shuttle routes."
Here again commute frustration registers. A 2007 report by Capital Metro, the transportation agency providing UT's shuttle service, the shuttles servicing Riverside arrived on time half of its runs, early 38% of time and late 12%.
Despite disadvantages, for many, those economics of choice cast doubt.
Along with rising housing costs in and around campus, tuition increases steadily. The in-state fall semester 2009 averaged $4,465, up almost $1,000 over fall 2004-an alarming 29% increase. It's much higher for students without stat residency.
From 1990 to the turn of the millennium, in-state tuition per credit hour increased from $18 to $80. For the fall 2009 and spring 2010 semesters, the cost is $355. Over the past 20 years, credit hour cost swelled 1,872%. Tuition will increase 3.95% each of the next two years, per recommendations by the Tuition Policy Advisory Committee (TPAC). Most students today leave college with financial aid debt averaging $23,000, according to Project on Student Debt at Berkeley. A hefty portion of this is in a landlord's pocket.
Ivy League universities understand the negative aspects of commuter campuses.
Each one requires students to live on campus for at least two semesters; some demand more than others. Brown requires on-campus living for six semesters. At Dartmouth, more than 90% of the undergraduates reside on campus. Princeton sees almost all of its undergraduates living on-campus, and close to 70% of its graduate students do the same.
They make sure the ratio of dorm space to admitted students makes this possible. By contrast, just 13%-about 7,000-of the students enrolled at Texas live on campus, a perfect number for the approximately 7,000 permanent spaces available. An additional 300 supplemental spaces, the DFHS reports, may be used as it is demanded.
Parker Zangoei, a Harvard Law student, says that University requires undergraduates to live on campus during their first year, although most tend to stay on campus for all four years with the advantage of being at the center of campus activity. Riverside commuters balance a different equation.
Calls to the Office of the Dean of Students, in regards to these issues at UT, were not returned.
In the end for UT students, it's location, location, location.
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