I am often asked to report on the price of attending USAO. I am taking a break from just that as I write this piece. Normally, tuition and fees take center stage in price comparisons. But today, I was struck by the price of living at USAO. How expensive is it really to eat and sleep while you are a student here.
The simple answer, of course, is too much. I was an undergraduate student too and remember full well what it felt like to be broke constantly. This feeling might be particularly acute for first-time freshman- for the first time in their lives they are being asked to pay for stuff that was always (probably) free. In the minds of many students (I am sure there are some exceptions), the price went up from zero to whatever these things cost now. Zero being what it is, I am unable to compute a percentage increase, but psychologically the increase is potentially enormous.
Of course, room and board were never actually free. They felt free because someone else was paying for it. Unfortunately for us all, at some point every adult begins to pay for all that stuff, so the real price comparison should account for that. In other words, comparing the cost of USAO room and board against free is misleading. You would still have to pay for all that stuff, even if you decided not to live at USAO. So, in order to evaluate the value, we must consider the price of alternatives to USAO room and board.
USAO Dining Value
Looking over the various meal plan options available this academic year (2014), I found that these range in price from $940 to $1435 each term. On a per meal basis, students pay between $6 and $8.70, such that larger meal plans are less expensive per meal. Additionally, I simplified the comparison by eliminating the cash equivalent portion of any meal plan including one. Let’s just call this an average of $7.35 per meal.
To determine whether this is a good deal, we should look at what that amount would purchase elsewhere. As a connoisseur of fast food, I can confidently say that this would purchase a medium meal at only 2 of the places I frequent. Everywhere else in town, I will easily spend closer to $10 per meal (assuming I don’t have to include a tip).
So, if you are ok with eating at the same 2 places every day, then a USAO meal plan is just about even. If you want a bit more variety, while still eating at the less expensive places, USAO will usually cost less. I should point out that price is not the only consideration here. In order to estimate value, one must weigh how much one pays against what one gets in return. It is here that the value proposition swings in the favor of USAO’s meal plans. All of the off-campus meals I considered in this comparison are of the fast food variety (think burgers, fried chicken, etc.). Off-campus meals that are a bit healthier or offer more by way of variety involves increasing our price range. Overall, USAO meal plans offer students a tremendous variety, generous serving sizes (you can stuff your face at our buffet if you really want to), healthy preparation and desert- for a price that can’t be matched. If you can find a better deal in town, please let me know. I will go with you.
USAO Room Value
Just like your food was never really free, the roof over your head wasn’t either. Someone was paying for it and it is usually not cheap. As a USAO student, there is a good chance you are staying on campus (about half of our students do, and that proportion is much greater when we consider just freshman students). Examining the published housing prices for the current term, I see a few options ranging from $1380 to $2630 per term. On a monthly basis, this means $394 to 751 per month. On the surface, this seems like a bit much, even I can admit that. In order to craft a decent comparison, I called around for prices on 1 bedroom apartments in the local area. This was by no means a comprehensive search. I limited myself to commercial rental companies with multiple unit facilities with comparable amenities. Additionally, I only called those rental companies I have been able to discover while driving around town these past few years. On average, students can expect to pay about $410 per month on living arrangements. Once you add the cost of power, cable and internet, the monthly bill swells to $590.
Depending on which living arrangement a student selects, they might find themselves saving almost $200 per month by living on campus. Of course, there is also the possibility that they could be saving about the same amount by living off campus, so the advantage could go either way. When we expand our analysis beyond cost and explore the value proposition, it seems that it all boils down to personal preferences. For instance, living on campus allows you access to our internet connection which is 2 to 3 times faster than normal residential access. I know that students living in Lawson Court have had problems accessing the internet for a while now (I read your student satisfaction surveys). My pal over at information services indicates that they will soon complete a MASSIVE upgrade before classes begin this spring. In fact, that connection will be of the “gigabit” variety, so about 200 times faster than even my own fast home connection. I have seen this thing in action. It is scary fast. How much is this lightning fast connection worth? Since you can’t buy residential access like that off campus, it can be tough to monetize.
Another thing to consider is relative freedom offered by these options. Clearly, living off campus offers students a bit more freedom. You can choose your own roommates, you don’t have to answer to any resident assistants and any number of your rowdy friends can come over for a visit. This can seem like a no-brainer in favor of off-campus living, but it has its drawbacks too. If your roommate bails on you, you still have to pay for the full rent. If your rowdy friends get you into trouble, it is not they who get evicted. With freedom comes responsibility and I know I have gotten burned by horrible roommates more than once.
Wrapping It Up
When all is said and done, I think on-campus living is a very competitive option. Depending on your circumstances, you could be saving a decent amount of money, could be eating better, or at minimum could be saving a few considerable headaches. Personally, I try to get to the dining hall as often as I can. The food is good, plentiful and healthier than the stuff I normally eat. As for living on campus, I suppose I am a bit biased- I had a roommate stick me with a $300 phone bill and skip out on a month’s rent. In that situation, I would have preferred someone else take care of that issue for me. Given the new tech upgrade, I may have to find a way to sneak into Lawson Court.