Sharing Showers: Comparing Costs of Dorm Living

Something Smelly

With students from around the country and across the world, dorm living can often be a chaotic experience at MSU. Rooms range from the pristine to the unkempt, producing a variety of aromas. This diversity and distribution of scents can often define dorm life. Wandering through South Hedges, one explores a labyrinth of dirty laundry, cheap perfume, stinky climbing shoes, industrial strength cleaning products and art supplies.  Each floor has a different Residence Advisor (RA) who is tasked with supplying themed cut-outs posting the name of each inhabitant on every door. Most doors have two names, but on some of the floors the large study room has been converted into a suite with four or more names posted. Hallways harbor an armada of occupants shipping to and from the bathroom armed with towels, shower caddies, razors and brushes, fighting for an open stall. Roommates face conflict over sleeping schedules, lifestyle choices and academic devotion. Fire alarms are activated on cold winter nights, elevators become incapacitated, privacy is often difficult to attain and floor meetings are mandatory.

Peers greatly affect living conditions in the dorms because of shared rooms, shared showers, shared bathrooms, communal kitchens and high-capacity dining halls. Intuitively, one would expect that prices in the dormitories would be relatively low because of the split cost between cohabitants and the increased efficiency of scaling-up services. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Cost Calculations

Auxiliary Services at MSU manages non-academic related activities that support students, faculty and staff. The Housing Division contains Family and Graduate Housing (FGH) as well as Residence Life (ResLife). FGH manages the Nelson Story Towers, apartment buildings and single dwelling units in the northwest corner of campus, while ResLife handles the dorms. Living expenses in FGH are broken down per month, whereas ResLife charges students by terms: fall semester, winter break, spring semester, summer sessions and interim periods between sessions.

Most living expenses are divided into monthly or annual periods. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Living Wage calculator projects private-sector rental costs in Gallatin County to be $6,372 per year for a single person, or $531 per month. MIT gathers data from HUD Fair Market Rents and calculates a living cost including rent, utilities and other expenses. For two adults sharing one bedroom, MIT calculated a cost of $7,668 per year, which breaks down to $320 per person, per month. Prices vary greatly depending on the quality, location, supply and demand of housing. The MIT numbers break data by county and do not factor in discrepancies in the multitude of qualitative variables that affect rental prices. However, they do provide an accurate baseline for comparing prices for dormitories to off-campus options. Other elements such as transportation and convenience are much more prevalent for off-campus living, especially as the prices of campus parking passes continue to rise and commuting during the winter months can be inconvenient and arduous in Bozeman.  

Since ResLife charges per semester and private rentals are represented per month, prices must be broken down per day to be compared honestly. Further complications arise because ResLife does not list the prices of dorms but bundles meal plans and dorms together.

For example, this term (August 23 to December 16) it costs someone $4,802 to share a room in Roskie Hall and get unlimited meals in the dining hall. Over a 115-day period, this breaks down to roughly $42 per day, compared to $20 per day from MIT’s calculations on food and rental costs for a shared room in Gallatin County.

The services purchased in a dorm are much different than a private rental off-campus. Unlimited prepared food at the dining hall can be more expensive than individuals purchasing groceries and cooking on their own. The dorms have front desk personnel, janitorial, landscaping, administrative, and other professional services that are not typically found in off-campus housing.

Private rentals are free from many of the behavioral constraints, rules and regulations of dorm housing but require much more responsibility from occupants. Landlord-tenant relationships can sour quickly and bills for electricity, trash, internet, water and other utilities must be paid individually. Purchasing and preparing meals is another time and knowledge obligation that concerns many students. ResLife charges one bill and takes care of the details, whereas an individual must navigate the challenging obstacles of adulthood. Off-campus rentals, however, offer much more price flexibility whereas on-campus living costs have risen dramatically.

In 1970, Room and Board at Montana State cost $865 per year. Within 10 years, the price doubled to $1,813, and doubled again to $3,710 by 1994. For the 2017-2018 academic year, it cost about $9,250 for room and board depending on which dorm and which meal plan is selected. This represents a 1,069 percent increase from 1970 to now. Adjusting for inflation, it cost 170 percent more to live on campus now than it did in 1970.

Choices and Challenges

As both MSU and Bozeman continue to outgrow current infrastructure, concerns of affordability loom over many students.This year, it costs $4,653 per semester for a double room on campus with a copper (unlimited) meal plan. Next year, ResLife will be charging $4,850 for the same product, raising the price to over $9,700 for the academic year. Some plans will exceed $10,000, a far cry from the mere $865 that Bobcats paid in 1970.

On the heels of the recent completion of the new dormitory, builders have been busy pouring concrete and erecting steel beams that will house a brand new dining hall opening Fall 2018. The wide hallways, vast communal spaces and study rooms in Yellowstone Hall are modern and tidy especially when compared to neighboring Roskie Hall. Yet to occupy a single room in Yellowstone (with a copper meal plan) it costs $5,447 which is $116 more per semester than a single room in Roskie, which has changed little since it was constructed in 1966.

Services, facilities and dining options have evolved since 1970, but whether those improvements justify a 170 percent increase in prices is for students to decide.

Graph designed by Venkat Krishna