Abandoning Pricey Dorms for Cheap Co-op Housing

Scrubbing your way through school can really pay off.

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Students at the Black Elk Cooperative in Ann Arbor, Mich., grow some of their own food.

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The soaring costs of higher education are reigniting interest in one of the easiest ways to work off a big chunk of college costs—doing chores in a housing cooperative. Little wonder, since the payoff can be spectacular. University of California-Los Angeles students, for example, can knock more than $6,700 off that school's $24,000 total cost of attendance by living in an off-campus co-op and doing about five hours of chores a week. At that price, those chores pay, in effect, more than $39 an hour.

Co-ops had fallen out of favor on many campuses in recent years because of their requirement that students do housework and their image as nests of lefties. But demand has rebounded as many co-ops have remade their images and financial necessity has forced more students to consider scrubbing their way through college. The North American Students of Cooperation, the biggest association of co-ops, has helped students launch them near the University of Virginia, Penn State, the University of Rochester, and Western Michigan University in the past couple of years, says Jim Jones, NASCO's director of asset management. He figures there are now at least 240 cooperative houses near at least 51 U.S. campuses.

Demand. More may be on the way, even at campuses like the University of Florida in Gainesville, which shut down the last of its three campus co-ops in 2003 because the number of students interested in trading chores for savings wouldn't even fill a single house. Instead, says Sharon Blansett, an assistant housing director, the school had waiting lists for more expensive housing, such as single rooms and apartments. But now, thanks to rising educational costs and better recruiting, a foundation that runs low-cost co-ops for needy, high-achieving college students around Florida got four applicants for every bed and has a waiting list.

Why are students clamoring for a chance to live in a group house that bans alcohol, is same-sex, and requires the students to maintain a B average and do chores? Big savings. The nonprofit Southern Scholarship Foundation charges only $1,700 a school year for room and board, while a typical University of Florida campus dorm room and meal plan cost about $7,000. Teresa Turner, the foundation's director of student affairs for central Florida, says that if demand keeps up like this, the foundation may build one or two more co-ops.

Cooling off. Students, too, are spreading the word. Andrea Smith, a senior at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Mich., says friends at her Lutheran college said "we're going to pray for you over at that hippie house," when she told them she was going to spend the summer at the Black Elk Cooperative. The independent co-op, near the University of Michigan campus, bills itself as "the vegetarian co-op that rocks." Smith, who bills herself as conservative, says she "hardly agrees with anybody, but we get along," especially because she and many other residents are studying art. She goes out to eat when she's hungry for a hamburger and shrugs off house rules, such as one declaring upper floors "clothing optional." ("It hardly ever happens. But it's nice to have that option. It gets hot.") She loves the savings and is planning to take what she's learned about buying food in bulk and supporting local farmers back to Concordia in the fall, where she'll help start a housing unit devoted to sustainable living. "I feel like I am trying to pave the way" to a more environmentally and financially friendly housing option, she says.

Doing Housework to Make Ends Meet

Students who live and work (a bit) at off-campus co-ops can save thousands of dollars.

CO-OP, CAMPUS CO-OP ROOM AND BOARD DORM ROOM AND MEALS SAVINGS CHORES
Fechko House,
Ohio State University
$4,156 $7,174 $3,018 5 hours/week cooking, cleaning, and house management
Black Elk,
University of Michigan
4,144 8,190 4,046 5 hours/week cooking, cleaning, home repairs, and co-op management
Robison Hall,
University of Calif.-Los Angeles
4,601 11,212 6,611 5 hours/week cooking, and cleaning
Hawksley II,
University of Florida
1,700 7,020 5,320 5 hours/week cooking and cleaning

Admittedly, some co-op chores aren't much fun. But Jessica Kaminsky, a freshman who last semester got stuck with one of the toilet-scrubbing jobs at Ohio State's university-run Stadium Scholarship houses, said she didn't mind when she realized how much she'd be saving—the equivalent of about $13.50 an hour. "There's nothing wrong with working for your college education. And you definitely learn how to keep your house clean," Kaminsky says. Other Ohio State co-op jobs are in high demand. Some students get desk jobs that allow for plenty of studying. And some even get chore credit for arranging social activities, such as football game house parties.

Unfortunately, there's no central listing of campus co-ops, so interested students will have to do a little digging. If a campus housing office doesn't offer a co-op option, many independent co-ops are listed at nasco.coop/guide. Information about Florida's scholarship co-ops is at southernscholarship.org. And others post openings with Craigslist or campus publications.