College Students Who Can’t Afford Rent Are Buying RVs for Housing

College students preparing for another school year are getting slammed by inflation, with higher costs for food, transportation and tuition hitting their budgets. Throw in surging rent and some are struggling to make ends meet.

Take Ethan Powell in West Virginia, a state known for its low cost of living.

The senior at West Virginia University is taking out extra student loans to cover his rent, which totals about $1,250 a month. He’s had terrible experiences in the past with roommates who wouldn’t pay on time — forcing him to use his scholarship money to foot the bill. This year, he decided to live alone.

Buy Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg Digital Subscription 5-years $89

Although he already has a part-time job doing tech support work, he’s probably going to get another.

“I always have to worry about whether or not I’m going to be able to pay my next bill or pay rent,” Powell said. “Thinking about all those things takes over in my head and doesn’t leave me much room to focus on studying.”

‘So Much Pressure’

Gas prices have dropped a bit in recent weeks, but remain more than 40% higher on average than a year ago. And the cost of groceries has continued to climb. Housing is particularly challenging, making up the largest portion of most young people’s budgets. A report from online real estate brokerage Redfin found that nationally listed rents for available apartments surged 14% in June from a year earlier, with the average price hitting a record $2,016.

When Cole Persinger, a senior at North Carolina State University, first moved into his apartment in 2020, the rent was $600 a month. Now it’s $850, and he’s taken on an extra job to cover his ballooning costs.

The 24-year-old, who’s studying civil engineering, works about 15 hours a week at a local Big Lots and then up to 20 hours on weekends at an Amazon facility. That extra rent burden, plus the stress about money, is making school harder, Persinger said.

“There are times I’ve sat there and just felt so much pressure and stress because of the mounting costs,” he said.

Buy WSJ Print Edition Subscription $318

In the 2021-22 year, average total expenses for students — including tuition, room and board, and allowances for books, supplies, transportation and other personal costs — totaled $44,150 for public four-year out-of-state students and $55,800 for private nonprofit four-year students, according to the College Board.

Those figures aren’t yet available for the upcoming year, but tuition keeps increasing across the nation, with some universities hiking as much as 5% due to pricing pressures. In May, Boston University said it would increase tuition for undergraduate students by 4.25% in the upcoming academic year, the largest jump in 14 years. Harvard, MIT, Duke and the University of Virginia are also among the schools boosting tuition.

Housing Search

Some students are choosing to live at home or with relatives to save money on rent. That’s the case for Cynthia Hernandez, who’s living with her boyfriend and his family at their apartment in San Antonio while she attends Texas A&M University’s campus there.

They’re currently paying about $300 toward his family’s $1,300 rent but are looking to move out soon, aiming to pay about $900 a month for their own place. Hernandez is trying to save up money by working at a warehouse for Dollar General, but there’s little left over after paying for her tuition and necessary expenses.

Subscribe to Barron’s Digital 5 Years

“At this age we want to be on our own and doing our own thing,” said the 23-year-old, who’s studying kinesiology and physical therapy. “But with rising gas prices and food costs, it’s been very frustrating.”

Astrid Allen in Houston had such a difficult time finding affordable housing that she decided to buy a used RV instead.

While attending Houston Dental Assistant School, the 18-year-old couldn’t find a one-bedroom apartment for under $1,500 a month, so she bought the RV off Facebook for $3,000 and now pays $500 a month at an RV park. Total monthly expenses for her and her 9-month-old son have been cut in half because of that lower housing cost, she said.

Get WSJ+Barrons Digital News Combo 5 Years

“Some people don’t realize how much prices have gone up for the younger generation,” Allen said. “All my friends are at that stage too and everyone is having such a hard time finding things they can afford. I tell everyone to get an RV.”