Students transform their drab dorm rooms into comfy living spaces

NEW YORK (AP) — From $300 studded headboards and $100 coffee table books to custom-made cabinets to disguise your mini-fridge, students are spending big bucks to decorate their dorm rooms, adding yet another layer to the soaring costs of college.

Some are even going so far as to hire interior designers to beautify their 12 feet by 20 feet of space.

Lesley Lachman, 18, planned her furnishings for her dorm room with her roommate immediately after deciding to attend the University of Mississippi back in May. The Rye, New York resident scoured websites like Pinterest and designed her room herself — with hues of pink, purple and green culled from a mix of pricey brands like Essentials with Eden as well as less expensive items from Ikea and Facebook Marketplace. Total cost for the design? About $3,000, covered by her parents.

“There’s so much work that had to be done because it felt lackluster. It didn’t feel homey,” said Lachman, who posted a “before” and “after” video of her room on TikTok.

The “before” video shows stark yellow cinderblock walls, a mustard-colored built-in desk and an open closet. The “after” video shows a complete makeover, with lacey curtains to cover the closet, embroidered pillows and a cushy white headboard to dress up her bed, and customized framed art of hearts.

“I’m so in love with the room,” Lachman said after her redesign. “I want to leave the door open and want everyone to stop by and admire it.”

Overall, the back-to-college season is big business, with families expected to spend an average of about $1,367 per person, up 14% from a year ago, according to an annual survey conducted this summer by the National Retail Federation and market researcher Prosper Insights & Analytics. Spending on big-ticket items such as electronics and dorm furnishings as well as necessities like food accounted for more than half of the increase, NRF said.

Meanwhile, the total cost of college — including tuition, fees, room and board — almost doubled between 1992 and 2022, rising from an inflation-adjusted average of $14,441 per year to $26,903 across all types of universities, according to National Center for Education Statistics, the statistical branch of the Education Department. Dorm costs saw a similar spike over the same time span, rising from $3,824 to $7,097.

Sara Hunt, 19, a sophomore at New York University from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, wanted her dorm room to look cozy but her budget was $100. That’s because she’s footing 30% — or nearly $30,000 a year — of NYU’s annual college bill. Financial aid picks up the rest.

“I definitely try to work on being positive and not comparing myself to other people because I’m so lucky for what I have. But it is really stressful,” said Hunt, who worked more than 60 hours per week last school year and took a job as a pastry chef this summer to help pay for her college expenses.

For her dorm décor, Hunt scoured Goodwill stores, Dollar Tree, T.J. Maxx and Five Below for deals on neon lights, wall paper decals and beddings. She also rummaged through bins of returned items from major retailers at a discount bazaar in her hometown.

Jamel Donnor, a professor at William & Mary College in Williamsburg, Virginia, and a leading expert on inequity in education, said the big divide in dorm furnishings marks an “unspoken reality of the have and have nots.” He noted that the stark differences in dorm decorating between those who have money and those who don’t can make some students wonder if they should even be at their college.

“There’s this imposter syndrome,” he said.

Dorm supplies e-tailer Dormify is playing to both ends of the budget. For the first time this fall, it’s offering various bundles of essentials including a pack of 19 items for $159 that includes bath towels and a comforter for those who are more price conscious. For the big spenders, Dormify unveiled an interior designer service for $450 with interior decorator Jen Abrams; it plans to roll out the offering with other designers next year.

Amanda Zuckerman, co-founder and president of Dormify, noted TikTok has raised the bar in dorm furnishings, creating “the ability to become TikTok famous or go viral because of how well decorated your room is.” Average orders are up 15% this fall, she said.

Dawn Thomas launched an interior design service — After Five Designs — in Jackson, Mississippi 20 years ago for college students after designing dorm rooms for her own children who were going away to school. She said in the past few years, she has seen plenty of other designers now working with students.

Thomas noted parents spend as much as $10,000. One of the more popular items is a custom-made $1,900 cabinet that covers the refrigerator in the dorm.

But she’s also noticing parents are starting to hold back on certain items.

“The economy hasn’t been that great this year,” she said. “And I’ve noticed the sky is not the limit.”

Emma Kirk, who is from Grenada, Mississippi and a freshman at University of Mississippi, tapped into Thomas’s services and bought a gold studded headboard, custom-made pillows and bedspread among other items. She didn’t know what the total bill was since her parents paid for it. But she said her parents reined her in whenever she picked out something too expensive.

“(Thomas) would work out something where we could get something similar,” she said.

Even on her tight budget, Hunt — the NYU student — says she is happy with her dorm room décor.

“At NYU, so many parents pay for everything. But I’m not here to judge,” she said. “The truth is, even if I had all the money in the world, I probably would still decorate my room the way that I have it now.”

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