The Rise of the Stay-At-Home…..Student

As the school summer holidays approach, parents with children who are going into higher education face a rapidly evolving landscape.

When I went to university, in the 1980s, fewer than eight per cent of students lived at home. That figure has now more than doubled. In 2010, well over 300,000 undergraduates decided to take a college degree – but not a college bedroom. The trend is sharply up.

Research suggests that the majority of students – eight out of ten – continue living with their parents to save money. Even the crummiest digs or halls of residence will set a scholar back thousands of pounds a year. A cluster of estimates put the average cost of a three-year-long course in the £40,000-plus bracket. Although tuition fees now make up a big slice, the lion’s share of that bill still stems from living costs.

Another study, from Liverpool University, has looked at the impact of this shift on students. Only a fifth of stay-at-home students avail themselves of extra-curricular activities. For those living on campus, the figure is closer to three-quarters.

There is a qualitatively different experience to be had here, for better or worse. Some young people go to university and go off the rails. In a world where children are sometimes wrapped in cotton wool, the cliff-edge created by starting university and leaving home, may be damaging. Yet others find their minds broadened by contact with ideas, cultures and personalities they never knew existed.

But what does it mean for a family, for a home, when a clever child does not fly the coup? At the most obvious level, it binds that child into the family in a way that would not have been true.

However, in the post-credit crunch graduate jobs market, this is no longer quite so remarkable. Acres of blog space have ventilated the question of the ‘boomerang’ generation; children who cannot afford to buy or rent a home after completing their studies and so find themselves back at Mum’s Motel.

My eldest child is only 13, but I wonder what the experience of parents with late-teen children is here? Is it the case that the ‘boomerang’ child struggles to enjoy family life because he or she has experienced independence and now chafes at the bit; fuming at being unable to sustain living alone? Or, having learned that self-reliance is not all it is cracked up to be (cooking, washing, utility bills etc), do they appreciate the family home all the more?

And what of the parents, and indeed, other siblings? In a big family like mine there is already a long-term plan for what you might call ‘bedroom inheritance planning’. My younger children share bedrooms and unless this blog secures some extremely lucrative sponsorship, the idea is that they will get a room of their own – when older siblings move on.

As for the parents, things surely must depend on the quality of the relationships. Where they are good, letting go is purgatorial. Where a parent/child relationship has foundered on the rocks of teen angst, there will some mothers and fathers who cannot wait to see the back of their offspring. Stories about the father who waves his son off to university only to put a snooker table in the vacated bedroom the same day, cannot be entirely apocryphal.

I can certainly see how the home benefits from the presence of more adults under one roof. It could turn the home into something of an internal market, where no money changes hands, but services are exchanged. 

For instance, if my eldest daughter were to become a stay-at-home student she could earn her keep baby-sitting and doing household chores. She could drive my car, with benefits for both of us (she gets to visit friends, I get the dry cleaning collected).

Of course, the cruel irony, in some families, is that the increase in young adults living at home has its corollary at the other end of the age scale. The number of elderly people living in care homes because their children are too busy working to look after them, is not expected to decline.

In summary, there is a big shift going on here. The inter-generational transfer of wealth from the young to the old is with us for decades to come. Young people will struggle economically to stand on their own feet far longer than hitherto was true. Living at home whilst improving the prospects of securing a well-paid job – by getting a degree – is an option that more and more students will exercise. I, for one, would love to see some serious research done (perhaps commissioned by HRF?) assessing the impact on the family home of this emerging trend.

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