Student loan debt increases alongside local cost of living


UT alumnus Nathanial Hailu sits in the living room of his apartment where he spends his time online looking for jobs. Hailu graduated in May 2014 from the communications school with a degree in Radio-Television-Film. Hailu came out of school debt free, partially because he minimized living costs by living with his parents all four years of college. 

Photo Credit: Sarah Montgomery | Daily Texan Staff

As the cost of living in Austin continues to rise alongside its population and infrastructure, student loan debt rates have also increased on a local and national level. 

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the total amount of federal, state, local, institutional or other sources of grant aid dollars received by UT students has increased by roughly 19 percent since 2008. In 2012, $141.5 million in grants was doled out to 42 percent of undergraduates. 

Pitted against five institutions of comparable size and city population, UT has the third-highest number of full-time freshmen receiving federal student loans — totaling 2,930 students in the 2011-2012 school year.

Hemlata Jhaveri, administrative services director for the Division of Housing and Food Services, said University dormitories consistently operate at capacity during the fall and spring semesters, with a majority of students residing in shared living spaces with community bathrooms, the most affordable student living package offered by the University.

According to the Office of Student Financial Services, the average cost of attending UT for two long semesters has risen about $4,200 since 2008, despite the 2012 in-state tuition freeze. During that same time, the cost of living has remained the dominating factor in the cost of attendance.

Jhaveri said the inclusion of services like wireless internet access, Bevo Bucks, meal plans and tutoring through the Sanger Learning Center are examples of how DHFS tries to increase the value of on-campus living for students.

“Living on campus also reduces the need and costs of gas and [personal] transportation,” Jhaveri said. “So students are able to save in those areas as well.”

Rene Rodriguez, food service director for DHFS, said affordability remains a central goal of the division in the wake of a high local cost of living. According to Rodriguez, DHFS has introduced only two price increases to the resident meal plans in the past 13 years.

“Our buffet-style options like Kinsolving Dining, combined with our retail and a la carte options like Jester City Limits give students multiple dining options at different price-tiers, as opposed to some other colleges,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said these differing dining experiences combined with online menus and account management of Dine-In Dollars and Bevo Bucks provide students with the necessary tools to make their own learned financial decisions.

“It’s just like picking which University you want to go to,” Rodriguez said. “You want to attend the place that gives you biggest benefit for your time and money.” 

Morgan Cardi, marketing and accounting director at Longhorn Leasing, said there is an ongoing issue of affordability in West Campus.

“A lot of the time, for students, the biggest thing is not knowing what to expect when [they] start looking for an apartment,” Cardi said. “I know that was an issue for me.”

Gina Cowart, a spokeswoman for development company American Campus Communities — which has built and manages 12 housing complexes in West Campus with roughly 4,700 bed spaces — said the company offers a broad range of housing products to meet the needs of various budgets.

Cowart said some of the apartments her company manages, including The Block, offer shared bedrooms for $389 per month, and private bedrooms ranging from $519 to $1,900.

2400 Nueces, another property under the company’s umbrella, charges $1029 per person for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. 

The company also offers off-campus resident hall accommodations. The Castilian, an off-campus dormitory, offers semesterly room and board rates starting at $4,200, according to Cowart. 

Cardi said the increased number of units and competition among West Campus developers in the past year will ultimately lead to reduced rent prices in the near future because multiple high-capacity complexes are struggling with maintaining capacity. 

“We’ve seen that the capacities are not filling up to 100 percent even last year, and the numbers are even lower for this year,” Cardi said.