Every year, thousands of Penn students move off campus, often to save on college expenses. However, reports from students suggest the University doesn't readily provide assistance to those who choose to do so.
The process seems particularly stressful for students with financial aid, who have to find their own housing on top of navigating complicated policies from both Student Financial Services and external leasing companies. Living off-campus often requires students to produce large sums of money up-front, which can also be a challenge for students on financial aid.
A College sophomore and member of Penn First who chose to remain anonymous in fear of retaliation from SFS, was awarded an external scholarship of $15,000 during his freshman year, which he was intending to use for his housing off-campus. He was shocked over the summer when he realized SFS had reduced his grant money by $15,000 after he reported his scholarship.
Since this student had already signed a lease before he learned that his grant money was being deducted, he is continuing on this lease for the year with help from his parents.
College senior and Penn First member Sarah Figgatt lived on-campus last semester. On top of a work-study job and a generous financial aid package, Figgatt worked 40 hours a week at a restaurant, but still wasn't able to afford her living expenses. She decided to live off-campus this semester to save money — and many other students living off campus cite cost savings as a primary reason for doing so.
Elaine Papas Varas, the University director of financial aid, said the sticker price for many off-campus apartments don't include all costs — apartment complexes often bill their utilities separately and students also have to pay to furnish their rooms. This suggests that off-campus housing isn't necessarily cheaper than living on campus, though the aid packages SFS is offering to students living off-campus this year don't seem to bear this out.
Every year, SFS conducts a survey of 114 off-campus residences and calculates a reasonable cost for living off-campus. Its estimations are based on the cost of a two-bedroom apartment divided in half, and Varas said this method is standard for financial aid offices at other schools across the country.
This year, SFS can offer up to $8,217 for students living off-campus. If they are on a 12-month lease, students receive $685 each month. For on-campus housing, students can receive up to $9,818 in their financial aid package, suggesting that living on-campus is actually more expensive.
The policies surrounding financial aid for off-campus housing can also pose additional challenges to students on financial aid.
Aid for off-campus housing is provided for as long as students are enrolled in the school year, which is usually substantially shorter than housing leases that usually span 12 months. The refund that students receive from Penn typically does not cover the three months of summer rent before many students return to campus and the security deposit.
In addition, the earliest the refund can be given to students is 10 days before the beginning of classes, which was a struggle for Figgatt, whose lease began earlier in the summer.
Figgatt said she was also confused by SFS’s guidance on how to apply her financial aid to off-campus housing. She met with two advisors: one who guided her against living off campus, and one who was more "upbeat."
Many students are unaware of the policies surrounding financial aid for off-campus, Varas said. She encouraged students to visit SFS if they’re considering a housing change, but also acknowledged that SFS needs to improve communication with students on this subject.
“We need to be doing a much better job on just giving students an education on living off campus,” she said.
Students and leasing offices also had complaints on the way financial aid for off-campus housing is given in the form of a one-off, lump sum of money. Students given this large sum of money often face difficulties budgeting, causing them to pay their rents late, said Linda Coughlin, the property manager of Apartments at Penn, a small real estate office on 41st Street that rents to students throughout University City.
“The money can always melt in their hands, and not always for the right things,” she said. “I think it’s ludicrous that Penn just hands out these enormous amounts of money."
Coughlin didn’t disclose any numbers on how often students miss paying their rent or aren’t able to pay at all. She said that serious cases of repeated missed payments are rare, but the few she has seen have been extremely costly for landlords.
Campus Apartments, one of the largest leasing offices in the University City area, declined to comment on the issue.
“I generally do actually have issues with money management just because you encounter social groups or your friends and everyone wants to go out to, you know, karaoke, BYOs, brunch, it’s frustrating,” Figgatt said.