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Opinion: Accommodation costs are driving out lower income students

When the highest accommodation costs come with the best universities, low income students are impacted the most. Source: Shutterstock

International education is often crowned the king of social mobility. Epitomising the ‘teach a man to fish’ mentality, studying abroad gives students the nutrients they need to take hold of their own life – in theory, at least.

Promising knowledge transfer, employable skills and international connections, a degree from overseas should be the key to unlocking a whole world of opportunities, regardless of whether you completed high school in a renowned international school or from a makeshift classroom constructed out of scavenged resources.

In an ideal world, elite universities would be equally accessible to all, providing prosperous graduate prospects for everyone with the tenacity to succeed.

While many universities offer specialised tuition scholarships for underprivileged students, there is another cost often overlooked by scholarship providers.

Accommodation costs can price students out of otherwise affordable education. Source: Shutterstock

A recent report revealed a US$340 difference between the most and least expensive student accommodation cities, with many of these places playing host to the world’s top universities.

Coming out top for the dearest accommodation per week is: Boston (US$464) and New York (US$402) in the US; London (US$339), Oxford (US$271) and Cambridge (US$257) in the UK; and, Sydney (US$305) in Australia.

According to this year’s QS World University Rankings, nine of the 20 best universities in the world are located in these expensive locations, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology which came out first in the rankings, and Oxbridge which remains the UK’s most prestigious institution.

For students from low-income backgrounds hoping to use their degree as a lifeline, this poses a serious challenge.

How can students who are relying on financial aid to cover their tuition costs begin to consider a university with comparatively extortionate rental prices?

Without the option of living at home, underprivileged students are disproportionately affected by high accommodation costs – a burden that eats into a larger chunk of their student budget than their wealthier peers. This means those eager to experience renowned education systems across the globe often to settle for sub-par institutions that cost only a fraction of their more prestigious counterparts.

Tallahassee and Athens, Georgia, are ranked the cheapest cities for student accommodation in the US, while the UK boasts Derby and East Lansing as its most affordable education destinations, according to the Student.com report. Have you ever heard of a world leader or business influencer who graduated from one of these institutions?

The purpose of university is surely to enlighten and inform all those who wish to learn. Arguably, tuition fees are needed to build these institutions, allowing them to attract leading academics and build state-of-the-art facilities. Accommodation costs, however, don’t fit this bill.

While underprivileged students may be able to afford tuition through scholarships and grants, accommodation costs out price students and prevent them gaining access to high end universities.

This creates a dangerous cycle where only the most privileged students are able to afford elite universities, allowing the top percentiles to develop networks with others from their elite backgrounds, before graduating into a world of high-fliers.

Meanwhile, those from lower income backgrounds sit waiting on the sidelines, eagerly awaiting a chance to shine that will likely never come.

Not only are students themselves disadvantaged because of this, but universities also miss out on this bright international talent that will never blossom into employment-ready graduates.

This begs the question: should institutions, governments and even graduate employers take limited living costs into consideration? Should scholarship providers be looking beyond tuition fees to make international education more accessible?

In order to ‘teach a man to fish,’ the person must have a net, access to water with fish in it, and knowledge of how to prepare and cook the fish.

By giving students tuition fee scholarships alone, they may have access to the course content but without the financial support needed to study at the world’s best-ranked university accommodation, these world-class opportunities will always be out of reach.

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