Student Housing - From a Million Dollar Industry to the Key to Reaching the Potential of Higher Education

By: Maria Francisca Moutinho Ricardo da Costa

From: Sciences Po Menton

For many students around the world, the transition to university entails much more than an academic challenge. For them, alongside the overwhelming combination of new subjects, colleagues, and, often, new cities, comes the need to find a place to live. In 2021, the size of the global student housing market corresponded to 11000 USD (1). As of 2008, In Finland, Norway, and Sweden, the percentage of students living with their parents is 4%, 7% and 10% (2), respectively. However, in some countries, like Portugal (55%), Spain (64%), and Italy (73%) (3), these numbers are far from reality. Indeed, In the European Union, from 2007 to 2019, the age at which at least half of the people lived without their parents increased by two years (4). In the USA, student accommodation is an increasing challenge for colleges and universities - as Forbes reported, “being admitted to a university does not necessarily guarantee campus housing” (5). Especially in the southern and southwestern parts of the country, “regional population growth and more students wanting to attend their own state schools to avoid taking on excessive debt or to be nearer to family” is causing excess demand for student housing (6). Universities are struggling to find solutions - which can go from supporting study abroad programs to renting resorts (7). In California, the number of undergraduate students who have experienced homelessness has increased by almost 50% in the last ten years (8). In the UK, a significant shortage of student housing options forcing students to look for accommodation in the residential rental market, as the country’s student population reaches a record high (9). Simultaneously, studies have stressed that shortages in student accommodation do not only have economic impacts but that they affect student well-being and academic achievements (10). This article explores how the dynamics of student housing are shaping various economies and its implications for higher education students across societies.

Student Housing and the Real Estate Market

In the last 20 years, the number of people enrolling in higher education has doubled, reaching 235 million students worldwide (11). At the same time, the movement of international students is increasing. OECD has reported that, between 2000 and 2021, there has been a 70% increase in the share of international students in its member states - with the most significant rise in the USA, Canada, Australia, Germany, and Turkey (12). In the UK, this has increased the demand for “purpose-built student rooms” (13). The dynamization of the student sphere has brought challenges to already student-dense cities. A study conducted in 2017 suggested that the inflow of Chinese students in Hong Kong has “a significant effect on the local housing market by driving up rental prices” (14). In India, the expectation of an increased number of higher education institutions has attracted real estate agents to the world of student housing, which is expected to become “one of the most vibrant Indian real estate markets in the foreseen future” (15). A study that gathered data from various university towns in the USA found that an increased number of international students makes “local housing markets in the US more resilient” to periods of economic recession (16). A more significant presence of international students has been found to boost “prices, rents, and residential development”, additionally promoting home equity (17). On the other hand, these inflows also increase local living costs (18). Such data encourages a more holistic exploration of the impacts of the student housing market across societies, accounting for its social, rather than purely economic, impacts.

Student Housing and Society - Urban Areas, Student Well-Being and Academic Performance

The voices of students are often left out of the conversation about the relationship between higher education institutions and changes in the urban environment. Yet, the process of “studentification” - created to illustrate the search for “student areas” in private markets and transform neighborhoods" (20)- has been shown to bring significant urban changes in multiple contexts (21). A study that focused on the experiences of students in Toronto, Canada, suggested that a “hidden curriculum” of higher education is embedding in students a mindset of resourcefulness to meet with their accommodation needs (22). This “curriculum” encompasses learning experiences besides the academic path students signed up for when they internalize competitive behaviors and a spirit of resourcefulness to cope with the unavailability of adequate housing (23). In case of students facing financial difficulties to pay for their accommodation, such curriculum “implicitly” teaches them to accept the “precarity” that comes from working one or more jobs during the course of their studies, “at the expense of their academic and social lives” (24). In Toronto, the increased vulnerability to unlawful practices by tenants has faced student responsiveness in the shape of the emergence of various support groups and networks to share information on “predatory landlord practices” (25). Such practices can happen either when students look for housing- for example, unlawful imposition of application fees or collection of private information- or under the condition of tenants- when landlords allow for inadequate conditions in their properties, like limited ventilation or a lack of fire safety (26). The student accommodation shortage in Toronto seems to have created a culture of competitiveness and, simultaneously, support among the student community. When faced with the suggestion that this much-demanded market “fragments” and “compartmentalizes” (27) the student community, we face the need to more deeply analyze the impact of student housing crises on students’ well-being. A survey conducted in the UK indicates that 90% of students have seen their mental health impacted by the country’s student housing crisis (28). Furthermore, University College London News reports, “greater precarity and poor mental health transform the cost-of-living crisis into a cost-of-learning crisis” (29). Financial difficulties seem to cause students to have less adequate working conditions and to shift attention from academics (30), with the need to find a job contributing to reduced hours of studying (31).

What is being done

Acknowledging the consequences of inadequate student housing on students' well-being and academic performance, we must look at the programs set in place aiming at solving this problem. In Coimbra, Portugal, the program “Abraço de Gerações”, translated to “Generations’ Hug”- allows students and isolated elderly to co-inhabit (32). This initiative aims to enable students to access free accommodation while fighting the isolation felt by the members of the older generations (33). Following the appraisal of this project, Lisbon, which has been facing a significant student accommodation crisis, is planning to implement it (34). A platform promoting a similar initiative, “Partilha a Casa”, or “Share the Home” - has already been set up to respond to student accommodation needs in Lisbon, Coimbra, and Porto (35). Despite being a recent initiative, it has already received positive feedback from both the younger and older generations, as it provides free accommodation and creates intergenerational friendships (36). In 2017 the Irish government launched the National Student Accommodation strategy “to facilitate both more purpose-built student accommodation and encourage the public to take students in as lodgers” (37). Furthermore, at the end of last year, it announced the allocation of more than 400 million € by the European Investment Bank and the Housing Finance Agency to “give universities the capacity to potentially deliver more than 2,700 student beds across Ireland” (38). In Hong Kong, where the student accommodation occupancy rate is almost at 100%, both private investors and universities are buying hotels to transform them into student housing (39). In the USA, institutions are resorting to creative solutions for their student accommodation shortages. After renting it for student accommodation spots since 2018 (40) Northeastern University set up, last year, a plan to transform the Sheraton Boston Hotel into a student residence (41). The document containing Northeastern University's plan accounted for expected “community benefits” like more green spaces and the attenuation of demand pressures on the local housing market (42).


Countries around the world have been facing a growing student accommodation crisis. The unavailability of adequate and affordable student housing hinders academic success and threatens students' physical and mental well-being (43). At a point when higher education is seen as an experience that exceeds academics, governments, and universities must collaborate to secure sufficient student accommodation options not to hinder the fulfillment of their social and personal needs. While the shortage of student housing is acknowledged to be a significant issue, there seems to be a lack of research about its impacts on the well-being of university students and the larger society. More research is needed to understand how meeting the accommodation needs of students shapes the urban environment and educational institutions’ ability to deliver a fulfilling academic and personal development experience that promotes a smooth transition into their adult lives.

Such research has the potential to contribute to the design of student accommodation spaces that are both affordable and adequate for the needs of students during their academic paths. Solutions for this issue should not be standardized practices across societies. Conversely, they should be designed to account for the specific demographic, social, economic, and urban dynamics characterizing different educational environments. Projects such as “Abraço de Gerações” (44) and “Partilha a Casa” (45), in Portugal, require research on their impact to assess the potential of the establishment of an increased number of initiatives seeking to solve the social needs of elderly people and the affordable housing needs of students.

The National Student Accommodation Strategy and the student housing investments by the European Investment Bank and the Housing Finance Agency, put in place in Ireland, suggest the need for coordination between public and private entities to assess the local and national needs for student housing. Furthermore, these strategies may enable better financial planning and more efficient establishment of goals.

In the United States transforming places like hotels into student housing seems like an effective short-term solution. However, this strategy would benefit from increased research on the impact of student housing in each university setting. Such initiatives must be paired with deliberation about the transformation of urban settings and must account for local needs and demographic dynamics.

The role of governments in securing students’ access to housing also encompasses the establishment of legislation and its application procedures to prevent malpractices and the discrimination of students, or particular groups of students, by landlords. Coordination with higher education institutions to make agreements with landlords and facilitate reports upon unlawful practices is, furthermore, suggested.

1. (Business Research Insights)

2. (PUCA & TKK Centre for Urban and Regional Studies)

3. (PUCA & TKK Centre for Urban and Regional Studies)

4. (Dubois and Nivakoski)

5. (Perry)

6. (Perry)

7. (Perry)

8. (Bishop et al.)

9. (Quinio)

10. (Sotomayor et al.)

11. (UNESCO)

12. (OECD)

13. (Quinio)

14. (Chang)

15. (Garg et al.)

16. (Mocanu and Tremacoldi‐Rossi)

17. (Mocanu and Tremacoldi‐Rossi)

18. (Mocanu and Tremacoldi‐Rossi)

19. (Sotomayor et al.)

20. (Sotomayor et al.)

21. (Gu and Smith)

22. (Sotomayor et al.)

23. (Sotomayor et al.)

24. (Sotomayor et al.)

25. (Sotomayor et al.)

26. (Sotomayor et al.)

27. (Sotomayor et al.)

28. (National Union of Students)

29. ( Koebel)

30. ( Koebel)

31. (Sotomayor et al.)

32. (Baptista)

33. (Baptista)

34. (Lusa)

35. (Luz)

36. (Céu)

37. (Dickinson)

38. (Dickinson)

39. (Chia)

40. (Cutler)

41. (Cutler)

42. (Cutler)

43. (Sotomayor et al.)

44. (Baptista)

45. (Luz)


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From: Sciences Po Menton
More posts by Maria Francisca Moutinho Ricardo da Costa.
Student Housing - From a Million Dollar Industry to the Key to Reaching the Potential of Higher Education
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