McGill University has a reputation as one of the most prestigious schools in North America, attracting thousands of out-of-province and international students each year. However, the complete university experience, including living in residence, is becoming gradually less affordable for many first-year students. In fact, McGill residences are now some of the most expensive in Canada.
Student housing is comprised of 16 McGill residences which, in total, house over 3,000 new students each year. Many first-year students choose to live in residence for a variety of reasons including convenience, location, and the opportunity to make new friends from across the world.
Accounting for both housing and meal plans, the current total cost of living in a McGill residence for one academic year is approximately $15,000. Over the past decade, the cost has continued to increase anywhere from two to seven per cent each year. Inflation rates, the recent acquisition of new buildings to be converted to hotel-style residences, and building renovations are all factors in the rising cost of residences.
“Our fees, without question, are amongst the top in Canada for housing,” managing director of Student Housing and Hospitality Services (SHHS), Janice Johnson, said. “As long as I’ve been at McGill, we’ve always been top of the heap.”
McGill residences now rival traditionally expensive real estate markets at schools such as University of Toronto and University of British Columbia. In comparison to the majority of other Canadian universities, McGill students pay significantly more to live in residence. Given that McGill’s main campus is located in the centre of downtown Montreal, the property expenses associated with an urban location are naturally quite substantial.
Another major price factor for SHHS is simply the cost of building maintenance and renovations.
“One of the reasons why our fees are so expensive is that our buildings are really old and cost a lot to maintain,” Johnson explained. “We have buildings that need millions of dollars’ worth of work on them.”
Yet another major expense for students is the mandatory meal plan, which at $5,350 comprises one-third the cost of residence. Interestingly, the meal plan is made mandatory for students at nearly all residences, excluding Solin Hall and More housing. According to SHHS, mandatory meal plans are in place due to the inability of the residences to house adequate cooking facilities, and the belief that communal dining areas promote a sense of community for students.
There are many access barriers associated with the high cost of living in residence. For many students and families, residence is simply unaffordable; for others, it requires significant financial sacrifice.
“Absolutely it creates access barriers,” Johnson noted. “At some point, we’re going to price ourselves out of the market, and we have to be sensitive to that.”
But perhaps there already have been indications that the cost of McGill residences have begun to dissuade an increasingly greater number of students.
In June 2015, SHHS extended the application deadline for residence as not all vacancies were immediately occupied for the following academic year. This has been rare in previous years, and the deadline extension is potentially indicative of a decreasing demand to live in residence.
The disparity of cost amongst different residences also creates certain access barriers. The difference between living in McGill’s least expensive and most expensive residence is nearly $4,000.
According to Johnson, SHHS makes every effort to minimize socio-economic divisions by strategically distributing overall maintenance costs—and also major renovation costs—across all residences.
“One of the things that we have chosen to do […] is to not necessarily directly pass on the cost of one change in a building just to the students of that building,” Johnson said. “We spread the operating costs so that [they are] increasing out over the whole system.”
For example, New Residence has renovated a few floors over the past two years. While students living on a renovated floor pay slightly more than students in non-renovated rooms, the overall living fees are increased throughout all of New Residence. Furthermore, the price of other residences is also increased in order to mitigate the financial impact on one demographic of students.
Nevertheless, McGill residences are notoriously expensive in contrast to other living options. Evo and Varcity515 are two alternative student housing options that have been growing in popularity. Many of these off-campus residences offer a familiar sense of community, support services, and opportunities to form friendships.
“The living costs [at Evo] are similar to those established by McGill, but the nature of supply and demand has inflated the quality of off-campus residences to compete,” said Zack Month, ambassador at Evo Centre-Ville. “Evo not only has floor fellows, but also full-time employees dedicated to improving the living experience.”
Month also argues that many off-campus residences such as Evo can actually offer a more unique and broader experience than a McGill residence.
“Evo attracts students from all of Montreal’s universities, creating a new opportunity to learn from neighbours,” stated Month. “Evo offers events from Yoga nights in our gym, to cooking competitions in our dining complex, to viewing parties, and more.”
Many students also choose to live in an apartment off-campus, which is typically much less expensive than living in residence. In terms of pure accommodation costs (residence fees excluding the mandatory meal plan), apartments within walking distance of McGill are often half the price of a McGill residence.
However, there are several distinguishing features of living in a McGill residence. The rez community presents an incredible opportunity to build lasting friendships while having access to crucial support systems. Perhaps most significantly, McGill Rez Life is a trailblazer in consent education, anti-oppression training, and inclusivity.
“We are at the leading edge of some of the programming and social educations of students that are happening in Canada,” Johnson said. “We’re driving our students to understand what it really means to have a place in the larger community.”
While Johnson acknowledged that the high price of residence creates financial access barriers, for many past residents, living in a McGill residence ultimately provides much more than student accommodations. The availability of exceptional resources and the diverse community fostered within a McGill residence is arguably unmatched by most other universities or any off-campus housing options.
“I understand that some families can’t afford rez, and that’s totally understandable,” Jemark Earle, Royal Victoria College floor fellow, and a former resident at La Citadelle, said. “But despite the cost, the experience is invaluable.”