High living costs forcing California college students to make difficult choices

The high cost of living in some California cities is pushing University of California (UC) schools out of reach for the state’s low-income and first-generation students and compromising the system’s mission to be a source of upward mobility. “That promise of an accessible public education is threatened because the housing costs are so enormous,” Steven McKay, a sociology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) tells The Wall Street Journal.

In a 2021 survey McKay conducted, nearly four in five UCSC undergraduates said they spent at least 30% of their income on rent. However, some 44% experienced what researchers call “obscene rent burden,” spending 70% or more of their monthly wages on rent. At UCSC, cost-of-living expenses and housing demands are so high that students are vying for spots in Camper Park, a 42-space trailer park owned and operated by the university. For about $800 a month, students get their own camper trailer, equipped with a gas stove, a mini-fridge, and sometimes an oven. That’s less than the $1,300 to $1,500 monthly rent for single rooms in off-campus housing.

Related: Housing crunch leaves U.S. college students with few options >

Students across the UC system are struggling to manage the rising cost of housing, The Los Angeles Times reports. Its nine undergraduate campuses are located in some of the nation’s most expensive cities, and off-campus living costs grew by an average of 54% systemwide between 2014-15 and 2022-23, The Los Angeles Times says. On-campus housing remains limited, and planned expansions have stalled, leaving students to seek out unconventional but more affordable off-campus accommodations like garages, living rooms, and pool sheds.

Other students end up seeking out a different institution entirely, especially low-income students whose state and federal aid is not enough to make ends meet. Today, federal Pell Grants cover less than 30% of the cost of public four-year colleges, compared with 75% in 1980, and are not adjusted for regional variations in cost of living.

Among the lowest-income students who were admitted to both UC and California State University, the number who picked CSU, or ended up selecting a community college, doubled between 2015 and 2021. As a result, the share of Pell Grant-eligible students attending UC schools—which have the highest completion rates and post-graduate earnings of the state’s public higher education systems—has dropped over the last decade, falling from 42% in Fall 2012 to 33% in Fall 2022.

“We are very concerned about these trends, because the university’s mission is very tightly connected to upward mobility and enabling everyone to come to the University of California, especially low-income, first-generation and minority students,” UC Provost Katherine Newman told The Los Angeles Times. “This is something we pretty much talk about every day.”

Keeping housing—and education—affordable

Lawmakers and higher education leaders are working to expand access to affordable housing so students can thrive. Governor Newsom and state legislators recently expanded Cal Grants and scholarships to students from middle-class households to cover more living expenses and tuition, according to The Los Angeles Times.

UC President Michael V. Drake also established a debt-free path program that provides students with enough scholarships and work-study to cover the cost of college without loans. The program will be available to one-quarter of new incoming students Fall 2023 and all undergraduates by 2030, said Shawn Brick, UC executive director of student financial support.

On the federal level, more students will be eligible to receive Pell Grant awards. UC estimates that as many as 11,000 additional students could qualify for a Pell Grant in 2024, says Brick. Maximum Pell Grant awards also rose from $6,895 to $7,395 for the 2023-24 award year, the largest increase in a decade.

Topics in this story

Next Up

Colleges are taking action as fewer men enroll

With fewer men enrolling in colleges and universities across the country, campuses are adding mentorship, counseling, and supportive services that get to the root of what’s keeping them out of school.