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University dorms requiring cash only, upfront

Mar 27,2017
Students are complaining of inflexible payment practices at privately-run university dormitories.

Kim, 24, paid 3.03 million won ($2,699) in cash for room and board at Sogang University’s privately built and operated dormitory, Gonzaga. The total costs accounted for five months of housing for a two-person room at 2.27 million won and the dormitory cafeteria’s 194 meal vouchers at 760,000 won.

Kim had to pay a lump sum a semester ahead of time to move in. Payment plans and cards were not an option. “If I could pay by the month,” said Kim, “I could have had a part-time job and covered it, I had to ask my parents to take care of it.”

The same restrictions applied for the meal vouchers. Prospective residents of the dormitory were required to front the money for more than 60 percent of the meal vouchers in their period of housing to redeem them. Therefore, residents had no choice but to bite the bullet and buy nearly 200 vouchers at a time.

“On some days, rice and kimchi, one or two pieces of rolled omelet and soup was all there was, but since I already paid for it, I had to deal with it,” said Kim. Refunds for unused meal vouchers were prohibited. Gonzaga dormitory management revealed, “A subcontractor manages the cafeteria, it made these requirements due to concerns of decreasing revenue.”

Korea University’s privately operated Frontier House is no different. Twenty-year-old Park, a sophomore at Korea University, had to pay for three months of housing beforehand and the meal vouchers in cash, 2 million won altogether. Paying by card and payment plans was impossible.

Furthermore, students could purchase only 120 meal vouchers at a time. “When buying it as package, I could save 800 won a piece instead of paying for 3,700 won individually, so I bought 120 vouchers,” said Park. “However, there were many occasions I ate lunch and dinner outside, I think I can only use around half.”

The JoongAng Ilbo confirmed that of the 12 universities it surveyed in the Seoul area, there were exactly zero schools that allowed payment by card. The Ministry of Education advised two years ago on introducing payment by card and payment plans for housing costs to no avail. “Generally, the reason is universities take the burden of card processing fees,” said an official at the education ministry.

“In the event [the university] accepts card payment, there will be the burden of card fees,” one staff member at Korea University said, “if that’s the case, [the university] has no choice but to raise housing costs. We are in the middle of examining the introduction of cash payment plans.”

There are also complaints regarding the sale of dormitory meal vouchers. Residents must purchase at least 100 tickets at a time at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies’ Global Campus, 110 at Ewha Woman’s University and 120 at Kyunghee University, to receive discounts of 700 won per ticket.

With the exception of Seoul National University and Soongsil University, which only offer individual vouchers, only Yonsei University offered refunds for unused meal vouchers. Students are typically refused refunds, and if students refrain from purchasing the fixed amount, they are prohibited from using the cafeteria.

“The [minimum] package units are too many,” said one junior at Kyunghee University, “so it’s easy to have unused [vouchers], except for leaving the dormitory, I can’t understand how refunds are prohibited.”

“Before entering the dormitory, [the university] accounts for the sales of meal vouchers and prepares the ingredients,” said one staff member at Kyunghee University, adding, “If [the university] offers refunds, it cannot provide discount prices.”

Criticism is being voiced on the privately-run dormitories, too. Compared to university-run dormitories in the same school, they are 30 to 40 percent more expensive and are often times more costly than even studios in the vicinity.

The monthly costs for a single room at Yonsei University, Konkuk University and Soongsil University’s privately-run dormitories each start at 629,000 won, 585,000 won and 537,000 won.

The comparatively higher expenses of private-run dormitories are due to the private sector securing contracts to run these dormitories for 20 to 30 years to recover construction costs from students.

Universities experiencing financial hardship have no choice but to find funding elsewhere, but when financially robust universities avoid directly investing in facilities and opt for privately operated dormitories, they are increasing the burden on the students.

In the case of Yonsei University, it was in the black for 633 billion won last year, but the two new dormitories that opened their doors this year were funded and are operated by private contractors.

“[Universities] should not put the burden of dormitory costs solely on students,” said Lim Kyung-ji, head of a civic organization focusing on youth housing, Min Snail Union. “The universities should invest their profits and should make the effort to share the burden.”

BY JEONG HYEON-JIN [hwang.hosub@joongang.co.kr]