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Napkin math: Notre Dame charges the highest room and board amongst its peers

| Thursday, September 5, 2019

University On-Campus Room and Board Median Rent, Two Bedroom Rent per person per year
Notre Dame $15,640 $865 $5,190
Michigan $12,071 $1,232 $7,392
Indiana $10,830 $998 $5,988
Illinois $11,480 $897 $5,382
Ohio State $12,708 $1,024 $6,144

Despite its location in the cheapest real-estate market of major Midwest schools, Notre Dame charges the highest room and board amongst its peers. For my investigation into the costs of living on campus, my first challenge was determining Notre Dame’s peer institutions. Are our peers other top 20 schools, like Cornell and Vanderbilt? Are they other Catholic schools like Georgetown and Villanova? Or are they other flagship Midwestern schools, like those listed above?

There is no one correct answer, but for the purpose of room and board I decided schools in similar cities would be the most accurate comparison. With the exception of Columbus, Ohio, the cities that host these universities are certainly “college towns” – small to mid-sized cities based around a prominent university. And without fail, Ann Arbor, Bloomington, Urbana-Champaign, and Columbus all have higher median rent rates than South Bend.

Yet, Notre Dame charges the most in room and board by over $3,000.

The second challenge in doing this research was deciding a fair type of rent to compare with room and board. The federal government publishes median rent rates for places ranging in size from studios all the way to four-bedrooms for every core-based statistical area in the nation. I was originally going to compare room and board with four-bedroom rates (which are cheaper) because I lived in a quad for two years on campus, but then I realized some of the women’s hall residents never live in quads at all, and students are less and less likely to stay in one after their freshman year, leading to my selection of two-bedroom rates as my point of comparison.

The third challenge is food, which is not included in the study. The most popular meal plan at Notre Dame allows for 14 swipes per week plus $500 in flex points to be spent at places like Subway and Taco Bell. The University does not itemize food separately from rent on its tuition bills, but it does publish the cost for a guest meal on its website. Lunch is $17 per guest and dinner is $19. If you average these two costs to $18.00 and do some quick napkin math, you can approximate the bill for food at $8,564 (14 swipes * 32 class weeks + $500 flex points) for the year. This leaves actual housing at $7,076, still almost $2,000 more than off-campus living in a two-bedroom abode.

A lot jumps out to me from these numbers. One is that the University thought my grab-and-go hauls of seven packs of Cheez-Its was worth $17 while a pack of 45 Cheez-Its costs $11.89 at Costco. Another is how incredibly expensive our on-campus rent is. Living in a dorm is not like signing a private lease in that your university gets to set parameters that can be much more restrictive than those of a private lease. One such stipulation is when a student can and cannot access their dorm. This year, the majority of students could not move in until Aug. 25, must move out on Dec. 21, cannot return until Jan. 12 and must move out for good on May 9. That means you only have 236 days of housing, whereas most private leases are typically signed for 12 months at a time. So not only is off-campus living cheaper on a per-year basis, it’s cheaper on a per-day basis as well. The median two-bedroom rent in South Bend comes out to $14.22 per day when divided by 365 days, while the on-campus rate is $29.98 or more than double.

Another facet of on-campus housing is the blatant inequality between the dorms. All students pay the same in room and board, but they do not receive anything close to the same quality of housing. A brand-new double in Baumer Hall, with A/C and keycard access, costs the exact same as a double on the third floor of Alumni Hall, which lacks climate control, an elevator, or, for much of my sophomore year, paper towels to dry your hands. Room sizes, even with the same number of occupants, also vary drastically across campus.

It might not feel like there is an easy solution to the blatant dorm life inequality. Residents of halls like Dunne or Flaherty could be required to pay more than those in Sorin or Alumni. While researching this column, I noticed Michigan’s on-campus housing rates can vary by thousands of dollars based on which type of building and room you live in. However, using this method would cause campus life to further fracture along the lines of income inequality, as those who could afford it would (theoretically) opt for the newer dorms.

Notre Dame could lower the cost of living on campus, which it seems to be planning in a way. Laundry is going to be free, single rooms won’t be more expensive and new stipends will be available to sophomores and seniors. While these changes are coming too late to make a difference to the class of 2020, they are appreciated nonetheless. They do, however, make me wonder why they waited to implement them for so long. If the administration decided in 2017 that these changes were feasible, why not start them immediately? That decision could have built up some much-needed goodwill as they prepared to further isolate those who choose to move off campus purely out of financial necessity by banning us from hall sports and dances.

It’s hard to look at all these numbers and the costs at other similar campuses and conclude the new three-year on campus requirement is about anything other than more money for Notre Dame. So, to those in the classes of 2022 and 2023 who are impacted by the new policies, I implore you to vote with your wallet. Move off campus for your senior year. You will have more space to breathe and more freedom over your life.

Best of all, Cheez-Its will no longer cost you $2.43 per pack.

Ben Testani is a senior studying international economics, Arabic and Spanish. He comes to Notre Dame via Central New York and while currently residing off campus, will always be a proud Alumni Dawg. He welcomes feedback at [email protected] or @BenTestani on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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