With a range of COVID-protection measures going into effect at universities across the country this Fall, students and faculty are in for big changes on campus. Many universities will hold a majority of their classes online, presenting the possibility that college towns will be eerily empty. The ghosts of yesterday’s parties will haunt small townships across the country, from Amherst, MA to Lubbock, TX.  

Students from richer families will face a conundrum: Why are we even paying for this four-bedroom Craftsman if we can’t throw a Halloween rager?

The rest of the student body will be forced to ask more substantial questions. Should I move further from campus? Can I get out of my lease and study from home? Can I afford any of this?

The examples that follow are more than a little worrying. Rents have steadily risen since most people now in the job market were in college, and with the continuing pandemic, Gen Z is looking at awful prospects, even compared to Millennials. Current students are getting kneecapped by these prices as people their parents’ age lose their jobs in staggering numbers and one fifth of US small businesses close their doors for good. We aren’t exactly setting them up for success. 

We evaluated the housing stock of colleges around the country and talked through the situation with some current students. Taking everything into consideration, we present the five toughest near-campus real estate markets for students.

For a fair sample size, we limited our search to 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom offerings. Most of  LoftSmarts offerings at the moment are in the Sun Belt, so sorry if we missed your campus. 

5. University of Washington

The housing situation at U of W actually isn’t all that bad, but it's a good place to set the standard. $1,880 for a two-bedroom apartment in the city is a dream compared to some of the other situations on this list. 

There isn’t a substantial markup for student housing with a view of Lake Union, and $900 (per person) will situate you pretty well in a pleasant Seattle neighborhood. 

U of W is an outlier in this group, because rents are actually lower for students who want to live nearby. An apartment near campus is about 9% cheaper compared to prices elsewhere in the city. 

4. Baylor University

To live comfortably within two miles of Baylor, you're usually looking at anywhere between $1,200 and $1,400. The problem: this is a huge jump from average apartment prices elsewhere in Waco, where the number is closer to $950. Sorry Bears, you are getting upcharged 40% for a short walk to class. 

That being said, condominiums are slightly lowering prices in the wake of the COVID crisis, and LoftSmart seems to have some housing stock for under the normal price. Within half a mile of campus you have a handful of beds that are in the $450-$550 range. It's one of those ridiculous 2020 choices: you just have to decide if cheaper communal living is worth the risk of getting sick. 

3. University of Southern California

It’s the middle of LA: the prices are not gonna be great. To live within two miles of USC’s campus, you are gonna be shelling out $3,100. Within one mile, that number jumps up all the way to 3,600. College students yet to receive their first paycheck are looking at the same rents as workers in the Financial District.

Due to their setting in the heart of the city, Trojans pay an average of 46% more than their fellow Los Angelans. Click around this map, and you’ll see it’s very difficult to find a bed close to campus for anything under $1,200, with most prices climbing much higher than that. 

2. University of Michigan

Students who want to live a mile from UMich’s campus can expect to pay the same average rent of someone living in LA: about $2,500. Ann Arbor prices are heavily inflated compared to the surrounding townships, and these students are paying a 62% markup on top of that. 

That number does drop considerably at the two mile mark, down to around $1,900, but those are still Seattle numbers. This handily beats out the prices of other comparably-sized college towns in the midwest, where students can often find beds for around 600 dollars.  

“A two bedroom in a newer highrise would be around 1,250 for a bed, so probably 2,500 altogether,” said Tom Augenstein, a graduate student. He guessed the figure exactly, and with a slight air of resentment. He didn’t even have to look at the data:  like many UMich students, Tom is finely attuned to the fact he is being squeezed.  

When asked if he thought COVID might lower prices, Tom wasn’t optimistic. “My guess is prices will stay the same, by which I mean they will continue to rise, grossly outpacing the prices of any other market in the area.” 

Sorry about that, Tom. Good luck with everything this Fall.

1. University of Texas - Austin

At the time of writing, the seat of Texan government is a global center of the COVID crisis, but this did not stop average rent from rising 5% year-over-year in the city. Even in the midst of the panic, students are finding little support from their school or surrounding community in terms of housing. With the average price for a two-bedroom sitting at $2,400 - an astonishing markup of 75% compared to the rest of Austin - students know they are on the wrong end of a bum deal. In this runaway market, they are often paying 1,000 dollars more in rent than their neighbors. 

“UT Austin epitomizes the college real estate scam,” said Marcelo Nawar, a junior. “They accept a larger class every year without adding rooms, besides these huge luxury apartment buildings.” 

Due to a lack of college housing, most UT Austin students have to move off-campus after freshman year. Students are forced to fight for housing in nearby neighborhoods, among themselves and with the surrounding community. This only drives up prices, and causes bad blood between students and locals. At the front lines of the battle, students get locked in with entrenched landlords, seemingly out to punish their renters. 

“I know someone who was paying $2,200 for the smallest ‘two-bedroom’ I have ever seen,” Marcelo added. “There is so little housing they can just charge anything for it.”

Many students in Austin, and around the country, are now hoping to get out of their leases. With these insane prices, and COVID spreading like wildfire throughout Texas, students are opting to take their online classes at home. Hopefully they can come back soon to a more student-friendly market, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

If you have stories about shady real estate companies or skyrocketing rents in your college town, we want to hear from you. Send tips to julia.gray@thinkum.com.

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales. 

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