I spent the summer between high school and college living with my grandmother in New York City, interning for a journalist, working at a thrift store, and trying my very best to make friends. Someway and somehow, I ended up at a party in Park Slope, Brooklyn in a three-bedroom, hardwood-floored apartment a ten-minute walk from Prospect Park. There, I made friends with the two 19-year-old tenants of that apartment. I have since found myself incredibly intrigued (perhaps enviously) by their lifestyles and by those of certain other NYC college students I’ve befriended since.
This lifestyle is what I have come to call a “financed adulthood,” an adulthood without the financial responsibility that usually comes with it.
The very first thing I learned from my friends, who attend Parsons School of Design, is that it is more expensive to pay dorm and meal fees at many universities in New York than to live in an apartment off-campus. At first, this perplexed me because New York is so utterly expensive—most adults that work-full time at jobs paying nearly six figures still can hardly afford housing. How could two 19-year-olds afford to live in this beautiful townhouse with a spare bedroom?
It occurred to me, then, that this was simply a redistribution of the same full-tuition funds many students (about 40%) pay to attend Princeton. Imagine student loans taken out (or the money put up by mom and dad), but instead of putting it towards a college dorm, it’s going to a Park Slope townhouse, and instead of going towards a meal plan, it’s going to Whole Foods groceries.
This is the life my friends at Parsons live, and it is glamorous, but it is a life most people do not get to live in New York City. And how can they, when hundreds of thousands of students occupy precious housing units from August to May?
NYC faces an insurmountably devastating housing crisis, and yet there are students squatting in Bushwick. Where is the ethical line between making a financially sound decision and taking housing from New York natives that already struggle to find it? And how much responsibility do these adolescents have to walk that ethical line when the institutions they attend simply do not provide affordable four-year housing?
And thus this responsibility also lies with the for-profit universities who are not acting responsibly to accommodate the tens of thousands of students they bring into NYC annually. Most private institutions don’t guarantee housing after a student’s first year (including the New School, Pratt, Fordham, and Pace), and even institutions that do guarantee housing all four years can only do so because the proportion of students that remain in campus housing past their freshman year is so small. Only 36% of the NYU student body lives on campus, which can be attributed to a number of things but, mainly, the cost of housing. To live in a single room with two students in traditional, dorm-style housing, it costs $8,250 per semester, which amounts to about $2000 per month of on-campus living. Off-campus housing can be half that and have single bedrooms and bathrooms that aren’t communal.
So, the prospect of campus housing is unconvincing. Universities know this, but they also know that housing—let alone student housing—can hardly be built in Manhattan. So, should universities build housing in other boroughs and have students commute up to an hour for their classes? (I say this as if it’s a preposterous thing for a student to do and meanwhile the population of Manhattan doubles during the daytime because half of the people who work in Manhattan either cannot afford or don’t want to live there.) Additionally, building student housing in other boroughs might only cause further problems starting with further gentrification.
And say campus housing is financially sound. Even if four-year dorm housing is available and affordable, will students take it? Or is the play-pretend, “financed adulthood” too enticing? This brings us back to the responsibility of the adolescents—the inability of their institutions to accommodate them ethically does not absolve them of a reckoning with their privilege.
This is a repugnant reality. Young people are the lifeblood of New York City and have been for over a century. Youth drives New York culture, art, and innovation, and the city itself is an utterly unique stimulus for the artists universities like Parsons and Julliard attract. Though this stimulus is hardly a justification for the gentrification ensuing from their tenancy, students are a necessary thread in the fabric of New York City—they are its future, and the resources expunged by the city itself exist to inspire exactly these bright and curious minds. But there is a question at hand that must be answered: How can students attend university in New York City without displacing New Yorkers?