David Foster Wallace was my generation’s answer to Hemingway but—on brand for Gen X—without any of the fun. My favorite Wallace work isn’t Infinite Jest, where you might get some of the jokes if you read the footnotes several times, but rather “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” a curmudgeonly account (originally published in Harper’s) of his first time on an “unbearably sad” cruise ship.
Here’s a highly abridged list of the many things that annoyed the sensitive artist: not being allowed to carry his own bag; men over a certain age wearing shorts; the steward remaking his bed every time he left his cabin for two minutes; “large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, greedy” American tourists “waddling into poverty-stricken ports in expensive sandals”; and his table mate Mona, a spoiled 18-year-old Penn State–bound Floridian whose “special customary gig on … Luxury Cruises is to lie to the waiter and maître d’ and say that Thursday is her birthday, so that at the Formal supper on Thursday she gets bunting and a heart-shaped helium balloon tied to her chair, and her own cake, and pretty much the whole restaurant staff comes out and forms a circle around her and sings to her.”
Wallace’s account kept me landlocked until my father supposed a cruise would be a fun thing to do for the extended family. Not just any cruise, but the same line that made Wallace want to jump overboard (Celebrity). And it turns out, he was right (my dad, not Wallace). Having everyone cooped up on a colossus of the seas meant lots of fun and great memories. For example, exploring the ship with my brother, nephew and younger sons—Hal (14) and Zev (12)—and discovering a beautiful three-story bar occupying the entire stern of the ship: huge windows, radiant light, extravagant greenery. As we’re exploring the place, my nephew dares obviously underage Hal to try to order a drink. Always good for a dare or—better—a prank, Hal thinks for a moment, composes himself and walks straight up to an unassuming bartender.
Bartender: What can I get for you?
Hal: I would like to order ONE ALCOHOL.
Bartender: You want what?
Hal: ONE ALCOHOL, please.
Bartender: [Stares at Hal, bursts out laughing]
After the cruise, I began paying attention to the economics of cruising. For example, Princess Cruises just announced a new magic-themed cruise from Los Angeles to Mexico (staffed by magicians from L.A.’s famed Magic Castle): seven days for $699.
This astounding offer clued me in to the fact that cruise ships may not be that different from private colleges and universities. Writing in the latest National Affairs, former Department of Education official Dan Currell perused College Board data and noted that net tuition collected by private colleges has actually gone down over the last 15 years. Yes, list prices have skyrocketed, but so have “scholarships,” i.e., discounts, now approaching 60 percent.
Currell rightly calls out high list prices as harmful to low-income students who may be dissuaded from applying or matriculating and may end up paying far more than their fair share. He argues persuasively that states should enforce consumer protection laws forbidding misleading and deceptive practices. But Currell’s overall argument also suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, America’s private colleges may be a bargain on par with a seven-day $699 magic boat ride.
How does Princess make money at $100 per day? Per Hal, the answer is obvious: ONE ALCOHOL AT A TIME. The base price isn’t the end of the affordability story. Although Wallace may not have seen it (because he barely left his stateroom), another way cruise ships are like private colleges is that while they may not make much on the ticket, they’re Scrooge McDuck–like on other revenue sources. For cruise ships, that’s booze and tanzanite. For colleges, it’s room and board.
Student housing is increasingly unaffordable. The University of California, Los Angeles, for example, charges $8,475 for a terrible triple, up to $18,532 for a studio. The University of Miami has a bad double at $9,360 and a one-bedroom apartment for $24,940. Keep in mind, these are for the roughly 30-week academic year only. And as with drinks on a cruise ship, there are no discounts.
For as long as mammoth cruise ships have sailed the seas, student housing hikes have far outpaced the rate of inflation. Over the past 30 years, the average cost of a dorm room at a public four-year university rose 111 percent, after accounting for inflation, while rents rose 24 percent.
A Business Insider analysis of 10 flagship public universities found that they raised the cost of room and board by 25 percent over the past decade, higher than the rate of tuition increases (22 percent). And while dorm rooms still cost more in big cities, increases have been particularly pernicious at flagships like Alabama (+64 percent in 10 years), Virginia (+37 percent) and Wisconsin (+35 percent). As a result, for a growing percentage of institutions, student housing is a major revenue and profit center; at New York University, 10 percent of revenue comes from student housing and dining. And for a large number of students, nontuition costs represent the majority of expenses.
As colleges typically don’t require students to live on campus all four years, students have always tried to save by moving off campus. But at many institutions, that may no longer be possible. In recent years, rents have skyrocketed—up 14 percent nationwide from 2021 to 2022, but even more in college towns (State College, Pa.—32 percent; College Station, Tex.—29 percent; Ithaca, N.Y.—29 percent; Lawrence, Kan.—22 percent; Austin, Tex.—20 percent; Ann Arbor, Mich.—19 percent), and about as much in big cities with big universities (Boston—24 percent, New York—21 percent).
Last year, The Washington Post cited a Florida Atlantic University official who said the cost of local rentals “roughly doubled in the past year or 15 months.” The Hechinger Report profiled a University of California, Berkeley, student paying $2,800 a month for a bunk bed in a tiny loft. Meanwhile, InMyArea.com released a report showing that, in the most expensive college towns, you’d need to earn $72K a year to comfortably afford a bed to lay your weary head.
If there’s an epicenter of the student housing crisis, it’s the new home of Prince Harry and Meghan: the American Riviera, a.k.a. Santa Barbara. The University of California, Santa Barbara, has 25,000-plus students seeking space in one of America’s most expensive ski-or-sand communities—where property owners have little incentive to build or provide affordable housing—and only around 10,000 on-campus beds. It’s been a slow-motion train wreck. In 2010, the university committed to adding 5,000 beds. While it has since added 1,500, the big bet was a donor-funded 11-story mega-dorm that would have housed 4,500 at rates far below market.
The catch: most bedrooms would be in the massive building’s interior, sans windows and natural light. Local critics piled on, calling the building “dormzilla” and a “prison dorm.” They said that this “alien world parked at the corner of campus” would be, in the words of an architect who resigned from a university design committee in protest, “a social and psychological experiment with an unknown impact on the lives and personal development of the undergraduates the university serves.” Petitions demanding that the university abandon the effort—one by community members, one by UCSB architecture faculty—attracted nearly 20,000 signatures.
The project seems to have been abandoned earlier this year. The whole megillah took about a decade—a decade in which UCSB’s housing crisis has gotten worse. Meanwhile, more students are living in their cars, in garages or on friends’ couches. “It’s really common to have 13 students to a house,” commented one student.
Thirteen students to a house is more comedy than tragedy. The real tragedy is the housing crisis’s impact on the students who most need the leg up provided by UCSB and other universities. Adding to the problem, the financial aid formula at many universities doesn’t fully account for cost of living; a 2017 paper by Robert Kelchen, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Braden Hosch found that about 40 percent of four-year colleges use a cost-of-living estimate that’s at least 20 percent off from actual costs: 10 percent of institutions overestimate costs of living by at least 20 percent, while about 30 percent underestimate them. Artificially low cost-of-living estimates have the effect of limiting the amount students can borrow.
Ultimately, students struggling to afford a place to live are much less likely to graduate. According to one survey, 72 percent of students who’ve faced housing insecurity have considered dropping out.
We’re not the only country with a student housing crisis. Canada’s also struggling, but largely because it has rolled out the welcome mat for an astonishing 900,000 international students—the equivalent of the U.S. enrolling more than six million international students, a sixfold or so increase that would pull every college out of the enrollment doldrums. Australia faces a similar dynamic.
“It’s very hard to find a neighborhood where you can put in a large-scale residence hall without getting tremendous resistance. Not in my backyard,” explains Northeastern University economist Barry Bluestone. In some states, NIMBY has been written into law, as in California, where the state’s Environmental Quality Act has kept universities like Berkeley from building new housing due to inherent college student noise—red tape the state finally cut through earlier this month.
But because NIMBYs protest every affordable housing development, American higher education’s best excuse is that the student housing crisis is a subset of a national housing crisis. The fact that large employers like school districts have been forced to take matters into their own hands and build new housing for employees is illustrative of our inability to build. America’s housing problems are a direct by-product of subservience to the loudest interest groups and a failure of vision and governance.
Nevertheless, U.S. colleges and universities are landowners and are theoretically capable of building. Their failure to do so is a failure of leadership, particularly for colleges in house-poor regions. College presidents, provosts, deans and trustees are guilty of letting the best be the enemy of the good, and their view of what the college experience should be—i.e., what it was when they were in school—clouds their judgment on how to solve this massive problem. Because when UCSB’s leadership went to college, most people hadn’t heard of Santa Barbara, let alone wanted to live there like Harry and Meghan. And if they did, they could work a minimum-wage job a few hours a day to pay for a place to live and surf some tasty waves.
Because our approach to student housing has been at sea, perhaps the solution is out at sea. Because you know what’s still getting built? Gargantuan cruise ships. So let’s have colleges offer students serial semesters at sea and begin housing students on cruise ships. Although it won’t work as well in Austin or Lawrence, Kan., it’s fine with me as long as the new college cruise dorms restrain themselves from trying to make money off students one alcohol at a time.