Poor Economy Leads More College Students to Live at Home

Andrew Leventry in his room at his parents' home in Iowa City. Source: Brett Johnson

Lauren Katalinich saved money living at home her freshman year at the University of Iowa.  So much money that she could pay living expenses while an exchange student at the University of Lancaster in England during her junior year.

Katalinich, a senior majoring in international studies and French, says the savings were important, but sacrificing a freshman year in the dorms was difficult.

“I pretty much blocked out most of my freshman year,” Katalinich said. “It was a little bit shameful to think, ‘Oh, you’re still living with your parents.’ I wasn’t able to make a group of friends like I did in high school.”

Kelsey Carder, a sophomore studying health promotions, pays tuition with loans. So living at home in north Coralville – a 20- to 30-minute commute from campus – reduces her debt.  Carder says she likes the savings and talking with her parents about her day, but admits that getting to know people on campus is sometimes difficult.

At first, telling friends she lived with her parents was embarrassing. “Then they would say ‘Good idea, save some money!’ or, ‘Wow, I wish I could have done that!’” Carder said.

Students living at home represent a growing trend in American college life. In 2008, they made up 31.5 percent of all U.S. undergraduates, U.S. Department of Education reports. The number of college students planning to live at home or considering it increased from slightly less than a majority in 2007 to 59.3 percent in the 2009-2010 school year, a July 2009 survey by the National Retail Foundation revealed. Their reason? The poor economy.

And, some experts and live-at-home students say the experience may strain ties with their parents and limit their social development, independence and freedom.

Living at Home Helps Ease High Tuition

“I think the cost of a college education has spun out of control,” said Michael D’Alessandro, a radiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. He lived at home during undergraduate and medical school in the 1980s.  “Whatever happens with the economy, I think people will be looking for more and more value.  And doing the traditional college thing is going to be a luxury that many people are not going to want to afford.”

Although students like Carder and Katalinich miss the rite of passage of living away from home in college, saving money trumps, they say. The College Board says savings can average $9,000 annually in room and board at public or private four-year colleges.  With average debt for a 2009 college graduate at $24,000 – according to the non-profit research group Project on Student Debt – living at home can wipe out most of a student’s debt.

For many, that savings can be a huge factor, especially with rising unemployment among college graduates under 25. As of April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics put it at 8 percent, more than twice the rate three years ago.

“Pretty much from the beginning my parents told me that it would be ridiculous for me to live in the dorms since they lived in town,” Katalinich said.

Despite the economic benefits fueling the trend, dorm life remains synonymous with the typical college experience.  College is when independence plays a major role in the transition to adulthood, and for most students dorms and resident life are the backbone of that independence.

Katalinich says she had an “in” with University of Iowa dorm life at the beginning of her freshman year through her then boyfriend, who she dated in high school.

“I felt I had this tenuous grasp on a possible group of friends through him,” she said.  “When we broke up, I felt I couldn’t show myself there anymore.  I just withdrew a lot.  After that, I didn’t really reach out to people, because for some reason I felt like I couldn’t, because I didn’t live in the dorms.”

Parent-Student Ties Strained

For some students, not being part of resident life can lead to serious problems with social development, academic performance and parental relationships, according to recent research conducted by a team of psychologists from Misericordia University in Pennsylvania and Penn State University-Hazelton.

Marnie Heister, professor of psychology at Misericordia. Source: Misericordia University Website

One team member, Marnie Heister, professor of psychology at Misericordia, found, in a study published in the Journal of College Student Development, that male students’ relationships with their parents tend to suffer if they live at home. Tracking 271 freshmen from Misericordia and PSU-Hazelton, Heister found that male students’ relationships with their parents did not decline if they lived in dorms. Females’ parental relationships didn’t diminish whether they lived at home or in the dorm.

“Since males are more socialized to be independent, it might be more important for them to be more autonomous from their parents during college,” Heister said, noting that her research is still in its early stages.  “Women are more socialized to seek out emotional support when they need it, and they are more likely [than males] to rely on their parents for emotional support.”

Katalinich agrees, to a point.

“I have a good relationship with my parents, but not on a friend level,” she said.  “Friends are not something your family can replace.”

Although her parents didn’t restrict her or set curfews, she felt constricted by the rhythm of daily life.  With no car, she biked to school and could not stay out late.  She felt obligated to attend family meals, though she was never forced to.

“If I was going to be living with family, I wanted to feel like I was part of the family, not just someone renting a room,” she said.

Andrew Leventry, who lived at home from 2005 to 2007 during his freshman and sophomore years at the University of Iowa, says he felt a strain in his relationship with his parents and with friends from high school during those years. Leventry says living at home kept him from making college friends, and like Katalinich, he felt obligated—though never forced—to be home for dinner and “family time.”  That, he said, led to growing resentment toward his situation.

“If I could do it all over again, I would have taken out loans to pay for the dorms,” Leventry said.

Home Life Limits Freedom

Ashley Hosseini, 21, University of Iowa senior, lived in dorms her freshman year and in an apartment as a sophomore, but moved back with her parents as a junior after studying in London during the fall of 2009. The move was a deal she made with her parents.

“I told them, ‘If you let me study abroad, I won’t take any more money for the rest of the year, and I’ll live at home,’” Hosseini said.

But going from the independence of living in London to relying on her parents for rides to class and friends’ apartments was a shock.  Hosseini says she felt some resentment toward her parents for telling her she had to go to the University of Iowa because it was the cheapest option, and she says the semester living at home intensified the resentment.

“I had to alter my social life a little bit.  I actually started taking the bus because I was so sick of asking for rides,” Hosseini said.  She said her father once lectured her about morality after she flew to New York to visit her longtime boyfriend.  Hosseini says she made the trip several times before in college, and her father never voiced his opinion.  She says planning the trip while living under the same roof is what led him to get upset.

“It’s a nice feeling to not worry about other people worrying about you,” she said.  “Obviously your parents should care about you, but it’s kind of burdensome when it is too much.”

Kelsey, Connie, Brittany and Dan Carder in their Coralville, IA home. Source: Brett Johnson

A “super close” relationship with their parents led Carder, the sophomore health promotions major from Coralville, and her older sister Brittany to live at home upon starting at the University of Iowa.  Brittany graduated in May 2010 with a degree in marketing, and, like Kelsey, she borrowed for college.

“Living in the dorms would have been nice, but what if I didn’t like my roommate?” Brittany said. She says she is grateful for leaving college with much less debt, and, like her sister, was  thankful to come home to “people who really care about you.”

“Britt and Kels are my life,” their mother Connie Carder said. “They could stay here forever and I’d let them!”  Connie says she even proofreads her daughters’ papers.

Heister says that even after children go to college, their parents must continue parenting.

“The support that parents provide to college students is important, but at the same time they [students] are in this period where they are not adolescents but not independent adults yet,” she said.  “They need to learn independence from parents.”

College Friendships Builds Independence

College friendships are vital to establishing independence, says Alicia Nordstrom, professor of psychology at Misericordia, and Lisa Swenson, associate professor of psychology at PSU-Hazelton, who co-authored the 2009 study with Heister. The study found that friendships made in college were more beneficial to students’ social transition and academic performance than friendships carried over from high school.

Katalinich says moving to an apartment with a high school friend during her sophomore year gave her more confidence in making friends, but she felt true independence and gained the ability to form a new social life while studying abroad.

Lauren Katalinich while studying in England. Source: Lauren Katalinich

“It wasn’t until I studied abroad during my junior year that I finally felt that I had ‘gone away to college,’” she said, making air-quotes with both hands.  “In England I got that dorm-like experience that I always wanted.”

Leventry, the student who said living at home strained ties with his parents and high school friends, moved into an apartment in his junior year and roomed with friends from high school until leaving to study law at the University of Missouri at Kansas City in August 2010.  Now living outside of Iowa City for the first time, Leventry says crafting a social life different from the one carried over from high school has been difficult.

“I feel anxious, because I’m meeting people and making friendships, and I’m not really sure what they’re looking for,” Leventry said.  “It’s the first time I’ve ever made new friends with anyone in a long time. And it’s a little bit scary.”

Some students who attend college in or near their hometown do the opposite of Katalinich and Leventry: they live on campus or in an apartment early on in school, but move back home later, often for financial reasons.  Samantha Denette, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, decided to move back home to Granby, Mass., for the fall semester of her senior year. Denette says the move is helping her save money to move to Boston or New York City while completing an internship during spring semester.

Yet the move, which put her a 20-minute drive from campus, has brought difficulties.  Denette must rely on her parents for rides to school.  She only has class three days a week, meaning she spends more time at home than on campus. And the distance limits her socializing.

“I think it would be easier to live at home if I lived in the same town as my school,” she said.  I would also be more likely to invite friends over if I lived closer. You have to consider how they will all get rides over, and if there is drinking, will there be designated drivers or will everyone crash at my house?  It just gets complicated.”

Denette sometimes gets coffee with friends between classes.  She says living on campus for her first three years of school helped her make very close friends with whom she has remained close.

Michael D’Alessandro, a radiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Source: University of Iowa website

D’Alessandro, the radiologist at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, lived at home in a Detroit suburb while attending Wayne State University for undergraduate and medical school from 1981 to 1989.  He says if given the choice, he would do it all over again.

“I never felt the need to leave,” D’Alessandro said.  “Why would I want to?  I had a loving family.  I had three square meals a day.  I had someone to do my laundry.  It let me focus on what I wanted to do, which was study a lot.”

Thanks to scholarships and a part-time job, D’Alessandro finished medical school with no debt.  But he acknowledges that college is “a daunting financial thing,” and choosing the most economical option for college—like Hosseini and her parents did—will make more sense for families in the near future.

Katalinich says living at home gave her the desire to have a job in which she is always working with people.  After she graduates in May, she plans to pursue a career in human rights advocacy.

“You can make it living at home,” she said.  “It’s not going to be the end of the world.  But I sort of thought that at the time.”

(Brett Johnson is a graduate student in journalism at the University of Iowa. He can be reached at brett-johnson-1@uiowa.edu.)

 

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