“Home, Home on the Range”

Ninth in a series on the reopening of West Texas A&M University in the midst of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified college cost discussions as unemployment has increased, family financial security decreased and college costs with accumulated debt have skyrocketed. These realities call for careful attention to reducing college costs. Seven of 10 families are concerned about paying for college, and more than half say college plans have changed in the wake of COVID-19.

While the health considerations are real, so too is the possibility for students to live at home and reduce the cost of college while bringing a modicum of stability and peace of mind in a challenging time.

At West Texas A&M University, tuition and fees are about $300 per semester credit hour (SCH). The cost of 15 SCHs, a typical load, is approximately $4,500 per semester or $9,000 per year.

Room and board at WT vary as residence hall rates range from $2,000-$4,000 per semester depending on amenities. Likewise, food plans provide multiple options but average about $1,500 per semester. With a mid-cost housing selection and reasonable meal plan, the tab to live on campus is about $4,500 per semester or $9,000 per year, roughly equal to tuition and fees. An on-campus student will spend about $72,000 for the bachelor’s degree over four years.

While living at home may not be right or possible for every student, it is a worthwhile consideration. It will cut the typical cost of college by 50%. The cost of the degree drops to $36,000 if completed in eight semesters while taking 30 SCHs per year.

For comparison, Emma Kerr, in a pre-COVID-19 U.S. News and World Report post, shows that the average cost for online classes nationally ranges from $381 to $505 per SCH. That totals between $45,720 and $60,600 for a bachelor’s degree, compared to tuition and fees of $36,000 at WT for the same number of hours. The WT figure does not include discounts from scholarships, financial aid or Pell Grants. Last year WT’s average discount was $145 per SCH, meaning a WT undergraduate could pay as little as $18,600 for tuition and fees for the four-year degree.

But choices must be made. Students who choose to study online can live at home, work 15-20 hours per week, fill out FAFSA applications, go easy on frivolous spending and apply for every scholarship available. With wisdom-driven austerity and purposeful focus, the same first-rate faculty, facilities and resources that are available to a student paying $72,000 for an on-campus environment can be secured with an investment of $18,600. By comparison, that’s a significant bargain for an excellent academic experience.

Whether living on-campus or off-campus, campus facilities such as the library, recreational facilities, intercollegiate athletics, clubs, sororities and fraternities are all available to live-at-home students.

A person living off campus, but not at home, will accrue costs for food, housing, parking, Internet access, utilities and other necessities that are roughly equal to on-campus costs. However, a student could drive down costs by living off campus in a crowded apartment and eating bologna and Ramen noodles should life circumstances require that.

In a recent article, Is It Worth Living at Home During College, five advantages of living at home are identified: financially friendly, healthier options regarding meals, a family support system, a limited number of distractions and the recognition of the old adage that says “there’s no place like home.”

On the other side of the coin, five disadvantages of living at home are also identified: travel and traffic, campus events are less accessible, lack of campus engagement, boundary issues between parent expectations and student desires, and a diminished “full college experience.”

Experience with students for 45 years reveals significant cost savings are possible. Also, students who live at home can be engaged with on-campus activities. I know a young woman who was a member of a sorority and the cheer squad while living at home and attending WT. These activities are not mutually exclusive.

To enhance the college experience while living at home, attend college orientation sessions, sign up for extracurricular activities, find an on-campus job, form a study group and use common study spaces at the campus. I lived at home and attended community college, going to campus each morning and staying until evening. It made me feel like I was engaged in the college environment because I was.

Students gain benefits from living on campus. However, if the cost of that experience requires decades of debilitating debt, the live-at-home option should be explored. A rich campus experience is possible, for less than 25 cents on the dollar, while living at home.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at http://walterwendler.com/.

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