Boise was a pretty easy place to live as a graduate student when William Rudisill rolled into town five years ago.
Fresh off a stint as a river rafting guide after finishing his undergraduate studies at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, Rudisill, 29, was drawn to Boise State University because of its geophysics program and the good quality of life for affordable prices. He soon started a master’s and launched into researching the water cycle in mountain regions. By next year, he expects to complete his doctorate with years of research on the headwaters of the Colorado River under his belt.
But, every year he’s been in town it has gotten more difficult to make ends meet. He’s lived in nearly half a dozen different houses near Boise State’s campus with a rotating cast of other grad students, with the rent increasing every year. Now, he’s renting an aging house for $1,200 with his girlfriend and it’s the most he’s ever paid for rent.
“I feel like (affordability) was a big selling point of Boise State,” he said. “Compared to some of the other big research institutions in the region it doesn’t have the same reputation of (University of Washington) or Utah (State University), but I feel like a selling point of it has been that it’s a great location and it’s a cool city and cost of living was cheaper than some other places. But now, I don’t think that’s the same selling point.”
Rising rents, low stipends
As Boise and its namesake university boomed in recent years, so has rent in and around Boise State’s campus. This is straining undergraduate students, professors the school hopes to recruit, and staff. But it’s also having a big impact on graduate students powering the school’s research efforts, teaching classes, and working toward their own advanced degrees.
Boise State has Idaho’s largest graduate program with 3,551 students, 40% of which are earning degrees online, like MBAs or a Master of Social Work. But, nearly 500 graduate students on campus, like Rudisill, are either fully or partially funded graduate assistants. This means their tuition and fees are covered and they’re paid a salary to conduct research or help teach classes full time.
However, the average stipend for all of these students is $16,000 per year. If you only count the stipends for full-time students, the average rises to $18,355. This low salary is complicated by the fact that lots of these students are prohibited to seek a second job on the side by the terms of their grant, leaving them between a rock and a hard place trying to pay their bills as Boise’s rents rise.
Living near campus is a must for many graduate students as they try to juggle time in their research labs with the courses they teach. A place nearby also allows students to walk or bike to campus and avoid a costly parking pass.
Boise State’s Acting Dean of the Graduate College Scott Lowe said the school’s graduate program grew 500% in the past 15 years, including 10% growth between 2019 and 2021 while the housing crunch was going on in earnest. But, he said university staff is discussing the issue frequently and looking for ways to find more money to pay students so they can afford to live in the area.