Take a look around UCF's new NorthView student housing complex and it's hard to believe families are struggling to cover college costs.
The apartments feature first-class amenities such as granite countertops, side-by-side refrigerators and 60-inch flat-screen TVs. When University of Central Florida students are not studying, they can relax at the Swedish sauna or sky-deck tanning area and hang out in the high-speed video-game room.
About two hours away at University of Florida in Gainesville, the dorm rooms in Thomas Hall are far more Spartan. The 107-year-old building has no air conditioning. And every 10 students share one or two showers and two to three toilet stalls.
Regardless of where Florida's public-university students have chosen to live this year, they've had one thing in common: Many of those residing on campus are spending more money on rent than on tuition. In some cases, almost three times as much, an Orlando Sentinel review has found.
While Florida's tuition ranks among the lowest in the country, state universities' room prices are above the national average. In fact, students pay more, on average, to live at a public university in Florida than they do at a private one, according to 2010-11 data from the National Center for Education Statistics.
Housing costs and options differ significantly from school to school, and on individual campuses. Rent for the last academic year — about nine months of housing — ranged from a low of $3,460 at UF's Thomas Hall to $10,114 at Florida Atlantic University's Innovation Village Apartments North in Boca Raton.
By comparison, Florida residents, on average, spent less than $3,500 on tuition for a full load of classes — 24 credit hours. .
NorthView's price tag: $7,822 per student for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment for this fall and spring semester.
Critics and some families question whether state-funded universities should be in the business of providing housing with luxury amenities — swimming pools, private bathrooms and state-of-the-art fitness centers, for example — at a time when students are struggling to afford college.
Universities, meanwhile, point out the importance of offering a variety of housing options.
Administrators are aware that some students will bypass schools with older, outdated facilities. They also argue that today's parents, many of whom insist on more privacy and security for their children, demand private rooms and the kinds of comforts students have at home.
The extras cost more. The higher prices come even as housing fees in general have risen statewide.
And these growing expenses — from increases in tuition to housing to textbooks to parking decals — mean more students are graduating with higher debt loads.
Richard Vedder, director of the national Center for College Affordability & Productivity, thinks public-university presidents should focus more on low-cost housing to keep college affordable for all students. In the race to compete for the best and brightest students, public schools, he said, have lost sight of that mission.
"They're playing as if the dormitories are being run by the Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons instead of a Motel 6 dorm environment," Vedder said. "They say that's what the kids want. But the kids will borrow and don't realize the consequences."
Universities, however, have another strong motive for offering upgrades. Research indicates that students who live on campus make better grades, graduate faster and are more connected to their schools.
Administrators want to attract students to campus and keep them there, which is tougher to do with older students. While several public universities in Florida require freshmen to live on campus, upperclassmen often move away to commercial apartment complexes and rental homes that offer more space and amenities.
"We definitely have off-campus competition," said Bob Boyle, the housing director at University of North Florida in Jacksonville, where a housing facility built primarily for upperclassmen in 2009 features a lazy-river pool, putting green and themed lounges.
Last school year, it cost as much as $9,300 to live at UNF's Osprey Fountains for two semesters, making it the State University System's second most expensive housing facility.
There are no state rules that regulate how public universities set housing prices. Each school's board of trustees establishes rates, which are based on varying factors.
For example, at UF, which offers some of the least expensive housing, rates are based on operating costs, which include utilities, staff salaries, renovations and the amount of money UF has borrowed to do housing-related projects.
At FAU, home of the university system's priciest complex, officials set rent based on market rates for comparable housing in Boca Raton.
UCF, Florida's largest public university, takes a hybrid approach, calculating rents based on the local student housing market and factors such as operating expenses and what other state universities charge.
UCF did not set rates for NorthView, however. Those are set by the building owner, a private entity. The university manages the facility, and UCF's foundation co-owns the land, located adjacent to the Bright House Networks Stadium.
UCF spokesman Grant Heston said that although a campus residence may cost more, students living at UCF enjoy extra benefits. They are within walking distance of classes and special events, for instance. They can participate in a host of programs, including socials, organized by the housing department.
Officials explained that the new Neptune housing complex is an example of how UCF is trying to meet student demand for privacy while limiting cost. Neptune comprises suites that feature four private bedrooms and two bathrooms. The suites do not have living rooms as other student housing facilities do. Each floor of Neptune shares a living room.
Rent there is about $670 a month per person compared with about $550 a month for a shared bedroom in the Apollo community, and as much as $850 a month to live during the fall and spring at the Towers at Knights Plaza apartments.
Parent Patti Fagan picked the Towers for her daughter Shannon's first year of college. While she said the rent seems steep — her Florida Prepaid Dormitory Plan will not cover the full cost — Fagan hopes Shannon will save money on food by having a full-sized kitchen in her apartment.
Shannon plans to prepare her own meals instead of buying a university meal plan. After two years on campus, though, she might move.
"After she has some experience finding her way around campus and has a good feel for the neighboring community, it might be a cheaper option," said Fagan, of Spring Hill.
Health-science major Kaitlyn Jacobs lives in UF's Thomas Hall and works as a resident assistant there. Jacobs, a junior from Brevard County, said she likes renting there because it helps keep her housing costs low.
She said some students move to Thomas knowing they can rent fancy apartments after graduating and getting good jobs. Portable air-conditioning units keep the dorm rooms comfortable.
"Some kids, I think they give it a shot for the reduced housing [cost]," she said. "I'll actually graduate without loans."
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