Ole Miss student battles rising housing prices and rising college expenses in Oxford

Meet Cullen, an Ole Miss student struggling to pay rent, tuition, and fit into Ole Miss culture one pair of New Balance tennis shoes at a time.

Photo by Mallory Lehenbauer

Cullen Patrick, a junior biology major, admits he came to Ole Miss because his girlfriend came here.

He knew nothing about the school, the culture, or the campus.

“A lot of people drive a nice car, they’re in the expensive fraternity or the expensive sorority, they wear the really nice clothes and I didn’t have the really nice preppy style clothes,” Cullen said. “The first semester, I was wearing cargo shorts and t-shirts and it made me stand out. I just didn’t look wealthy, I guess, and I wasn’t involved in that kind of lifestyle, that luxury to be able to spend money. I think that’s what made it the most difficult.”

To Cullen it felt like money also bought friends, “It was almost like it formed friends, everyone goes out and buys drinks or whatever, something I couldn’t do. My first semester was really rough, It was a lot harder than I thought it would be I kind of struggled making friends and finding my niche.”

When Cullen arrived in Oxford he had a ton of scholarships, but lost some because of his GPA going into his sophomore year. The biggest blow was a ten thousand dollar scholarship. This loss pushed him into taking out several loans and using the remaining scholarships.

“My parents never helped me with the tuition,” he said.

Initially they helped with spending money, but then he slowly started taking over more responsibility.

Cullen wrecked his truck, he said that catapulted his parents to stop supporting him financially. Loans and scholarships pay for Cullen’s tuition, but the rest is solely his responsibility. Cullen takes on multiple jobs, even driving to Memphis twice a week after class to work.

Even though Cullen doesn’t drive a new car or rely on his parents for rent and food, Cullen realizes he has adapted and assimilated into the Ole Miss culture. Not because he suddenly has money, but because he dresses and fits the bill.

“The way I’ve dressed changed my confidence a lot. I never thought about it, but it’s a huge thing,” he said. “I would have never worn tall white Nike socks and New Balances, but then it just seemed like what the frat guys wear, so I said ‘hey, I need to get a pair of those shoes.’ It’s just, I didn’t have that sort of clothing going into college.”

Graphic by Mallory Lehenbauer

Even if the students look the part, Ole Miss seems to lead many universities in offering financial aid with 83% of students receiving financial aid, the annual cost to attend Ole Miss is $34,752. The average Grant Aid Received (FT/First-Time) is $6,543. In 2013 Ole Miss was selected for the Top 20 of Forbes’ “Best Buy Colleges.” This list includes 650 colleges and universities and ranked Ole Miss number 20.

Tuition and housing are covered the first semester for most students, but Ole Miss students only live on campus their first year. Moving off campus offers multiple options in luxury student housing and offers less aid than tuition.

The most expensive apartment is SOLO, an apartment for a single person living off the square. A month of rent there costs $1,350 per month, while living with other students can cost around $700 a person, if you live in luxury housing such as The Domain or The Retreat. At Aspen Heights (luxury student apartments) in Starkville, Mississippi the cost for a shared apartment is around $500 a month.

In a Cost of Living comparison (based on national average) between Oxford, Mississippi and Clemson, South Carolina shows Clemson is merely 2% cheaper than Oxford. Clemson and The University of Mississippi reflect similar towns and campuses. Clemson’s enrollment in 2014 was 21,857 students, while Ole Miss’s enrollment was 20,112 students. The size of the towns and the universities are easily comparable. The major statistic that differentiates the two towns is their cost of housing. Housing is 20% cheaper in Clemson than in Oxford.

Jackson, Mississippi is a much bigger city than Oxford, with a population of 172,638, while Oxford has a population of 20,865; housing in Jackson is 51% cheaper. Tuscaloosa, where the University of Alabama resides, housing is 30% cheaper than Oxford. In Starkville, Mississippi the cost of living is 20% cheaper than Oxford, while otherwise the town itself is only 7% cheaper.

Cullen says he feels the pain of an expensive rent. He says his friends and roommates that don’t pay their own expenses ”don’t understand what it’s like to have to pay for things on your own.” Which he said can be very frustrating.

“I worked my butt off in the summer, just to be able to pay for food and girlfriend expenses for the semester,” he said. “I am just living sort of a minimalist lifestyle. I don’t shop for clothes and I just make do with what I have now.”

This minimalist lifestyle seems to differ from the student body as a whole. Cullen said he knows plenty of students with an immense allowance, and that it makes him angry. He often has to say no to friends that want to eat out or drink on the Square, but he feels the “rich kid” stereotype is unfair.

“My views of the school in general have changed, because I found my place. I acquired the sense of style in the last three years. I casually changed the way I dressed.”

Ole Miss students are notorious for their look, winning best-dressed tailgaters in the SEC often. But most students feel that this stereotype is not completely true. All students aren’t necessarily wealthy, they just appear that way.

“Their parents send them here, and it cost a lot more money to come from out of state, and I don’t think people really appreciate it,” she said.

Galen Phillips registered and became a student at Ole Miss after graduating high school, but after a year transferred to Delta State University.

Gallen Phillips while a freshman at Ole Miss. (Photo Courtesy of Galen Phillips).

“It was very fast-paced, it was never calm, it was just really stressful,” she said about the University. “A bunch of people that went there already knew a bunch of people and I never really found my place.”

She said the way students dress and act is “expected, because it’s always been like that. [Ole Miss] was very high end, you felt like you had to have the designer stuff. They kinda all look the same and have the same style, in their clothes and the way they act.”

When asked how the typical Ole Miss girl looks she responded with a specific outfit: The Ole Miss girl has curled hair, pretty skin (chuckles), blue jeans with booties, a dressy shirt and a fur vest, Definitely a Tory Burch or Kelly Lin purse.

“No matter what college you go to, you’re definitely going to run into that group of 18–22 year olds who have never paid for anything and you will also run into the other side,” Cullen said. “The thing with Ole Miss is that those wealthier kids get the majority of the spotlight.”

Other students automatically adjust to the culture and the ideal dress. Hayden Hudson graduated from Oxford High School and is now a freshman. She remembers the culture shift from high school to living on the university campus.

“I think Oxford is a boutique town, because it has all the small town feel, but also people try to keep up with the latest trends,” she said.

Hayden said she feels that the culture is not necessarily expensive, but requires you to be ahead of the game, to be in on what to wear and how to act.

“Its hard to be an individual,” she said. “Once I sat down and started to get involved in activities, I was a lot happier. I am not just being somebody in the crowd. I was around all the same kind of people, same demographic, same upbringing, that made me really comfortable, but at the same time uncomfortable. It wasn’t interesting.”

Cullen admits to this same tension, but feels that it’s no different than other campuses.

“Compared to other universities, we are just as balanced and have equal percentages as as everyone else, but it’s not the image outsiders see, they only see the rich snobby kids, which we have plenty of don’t get me wrong.”