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Giving it the old college try ... at home on Long Island

Long Island families talk about how they make it all work when a college student decides to stay at home.

"When I was applying to schools, I had

"When I was applying to schools, I had my heart set on going away. ... But living at home for the first two years has been good," says Rocky Point's Mary Rose Romano. Photo Credit: Danielle Silverman

College marks a big transition in the lives of students. However, financial and familial considerations mean that many choose to live at home. For some, it's a temporary arrangement borne of necessity. For others, it's a considered decision made to ensure that college years — and life afterward — provide the best possible foundation for a solid future. We spoke to three families on Long Island about how they make this arrangement work for them.

Ayshawna Baldwin, 24

Senior criminology major at SUNY Old Westbury

Home Lives in a three-story, three-bedroom, three-bath home in Deer Park with daughter, Skylar, 3, and mother, Kesia Humphrey, 42, who works in medical records at the Suffolk County Department of Health.

The decision to stay at home during college wasn't something Kesia Humphrey and her daughter, Ayshawna Baldwin, were enthusiastic about. "It was my hope that she would go away, but as long as she attended school, I supported her decision," says Humphrey.

Baldwin says she was, frankly, scared to go out on her own. "Even though my mother and I often bumped heads, I was not ready to leave," she says. "And none of my close friends went away." Still, Baldwin, who started SUNY Old Westbury when she was 18, says she has some regrets. "Being much older and wiser now, I wish I went away for the experience," she says. "But don’t get me wrong. I’m extremely proud and excited about my upcoming accomplishment, especially with the cards I was dealt with in my life, like becoming a mother."

The on-campus housing cost for a typical student was $7,300 in 2016-2017, and the cost of a typical dining plan was $3,720. Baldwin pays her mother rent — an amount that's changed over time as her jobs have improved (she was a customer service rep at GEICO; now she's a legal secretary). "My rent started at $50 or $75 a month — something very small," says Baldwin. "Then it went to $100, and then $150, and now I’m currently paying $250." Even though the rent is due monthly, she says she finds it easier to break it down into manageable increments — every two weeks, when she is paid. For that, she and Skylar each get their own bedrooms. And Baldwin has no student loan debt. She is paying for her tuition from her wages.

"My biggest qualm is that she really doesn't help out a lot because of her work schedule, school schedule, and Skylar," says Humphrey. "I ask her to clean the bathroom, and sometimes she cleans it, but I think because she lives at home it's easier for her not to."

Baldwin admits that it's not always easy for her to balance everything. "But being a full-time college student, employee and mother, it can be overwhelming at times," she says. "I get up, drop Skylar at school, go to work, go straight from work to class, and then straight home. Then I cook and get Skylar in bed, and she gets homework, too."

She says she wants to move out when she graduates in 2019. But, Humphrey says, "I'd like her to be able to buy a home. So if she has to stay here until she's financially ready, that's OK." 

Kate Zimmer, 19

Sophomore secondary education major with a focus in English at LIU Post

Jared Zimmer, 19

Sophomore accounting major at LIU Post

Home Both live in a three-story, five-bedroom, 3 1/2-bathroom house in Commack with their mother, Susan Zimmer, 60, director of marketing at a law firm, and father, Todd Zimmer, 50, a divorce attorney.

Susan Zimmer says that even though Kate and Jared are twins, their decision to live at home while attending the same school were made independently of each other — and of their parents. "We gave the kids carte blanche to do what they wanted," she says.

Then they both got full scholarships to LIU Post. Jared, who was thinking about going to college in the city, decided to live at home. Kate dormed on campus — for two weeks. "I definitely was having a lot of anxiety living away," says Kate. "I wasn’t sleeping well, and I wasn’t comfortable, and I wasn't focusing on my studies." 

Jared, who works part-time for a marketing company, says deciding to live at home was about making sure his post-college life is secure. He and his sister would otherwise be paying for housing and meals out of pocket, at a cost of about $13,400 a year. "It's very expensive to live on Long Island," he says. "So you have to provide a stable future for yourself." Kate says she likes to save some of the money she earns from working part-time for the campus admissions office. "My parents do expect us to pay for what we need," she says. 

He uses his 30-minute commuting time to think. "The commute isn't the most pleasant, but my time in the morning and afternoon is when I reflect," he says. "And sometimes I'm at school from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m."

Those late hours sometimes worry their mother. "The only thing that I find challenging is that Katie's hours are very, very long, and she will come home late at night," Susan says. "And Jared will come home late at night, too. And them driving late at night is our biggest concern. But my friends pine away for their kids who are away at college, and I don't."

Todd says that the twins' challenges are far outshined by the rewards. "It's nice to have them here," he says. "It's a busy, active household. And if they had gone away, we'd be debating what to do with all that empty time. Having them here keeps the house a home."

Mary Rose Romano, 20

Junior English and psychology major and secondary teaching program enrollee at Stony Brook University

Home Lives in a three-bedroom, three-bathroom ranch home in Rocky Point with mother Josephine Romano, 51, who works part time for a home appraisal company, father John Romano, 54, owner of a paint store in Rocky Point, sister Christina Romano, 22, in her first year of a master's in occupational therapy at Stony Brook University, and sister Katie, 11, who starts sixth grade this fall.

Josephine Romano says the decision to have daughter Mary Rose live at home while attending college began four years ago after her eldest child, Christina, made the same choice. "They knew if they stayed at home and didn't have to pay all that room and board, they'd have the opportunity to go away for at least a semester," says Josephine. 

Christina took advantage of that, and spent part of her junior year in Australia; Mary Rose wasn't as excited about the idea of living at home. "When I was applying to schools, I had my heart set on going away," she says. Now that she's found her footing at school, she has decided to move out in this fall  to become an resident assistant in the dorms. "It'll be easier to socialize in that respect. And if being an RA is too overwhelming, I'll only do it for one year," she says.

The cost of her dorm is included as an RA; otherwise, the cost at Stony Brook University for any typical student was $8,082 in 2016-2017 and the price of a typical meal plan was $4,800.

The Romanos pay for their daughters' books and their cars, and they do not charge rent, but tuition and incidentals are Mary Rose and Christina's responsibilities. That means both have worked while they go to school. Mary Rose has been an undergraduate assistant, and Christina a receptionist at an insurance office. "When you look at the cost of dorming, and look at the cost of minimum wage, home is the better option," says Christina, who plans to stay with the family until she's able to pay off loans for her master's degree.

Of course, the daughters help at home. "Our house is not a dorm," says John. "You need to kick in. There's stuff you need to do. We're asking normal household chores that take 20 minutes. Studying is the priority, but we're not maids."

For Katie, the youngest, seeing her sister Mary Rose move out is going to spell big change. "I like having my sister in my room, but my side of the room is always cleaner because she's always at school," says Katie, who has shared a room with Mary Rose for seven years.

Decorating for the students

For college students living at home, the space they occupy remains the same. The decorating challenge becomes reworking that area to better serve a student's changing needs, says Huntington interior designer Amal Kapen.

"Sometimes gaining additional space can be as easy as clearing out items and installing a professional closet system," says Kapen. That can allow a student to add a new desk and bookcase in the space previously occupied by bulky dressers. It also helps the family reclaim a home. "As a result, students are able to vacate the kitchen table and use their rooms to organize books, computer and calendar," she says.

Kapen offers other tips for making at-home space work:

Make sure to make changes. "Redecorating your college student’s room really makes your child feel like there's a transition in their life, and that you understand that, as young adults, they need a work station away from the hustle and bustle of the epicenter of family life," says Kapen.

Prioritize study space. "A designated study and work station can really help students keep organized," says Kapen. "Even if they keep all their information on a computer."

Toss and organize. "Reorganizing and decluttering can go a long way toward helping a space feel fresh and more peaceful," says Kapen. "It's really helpful to completely clear out a room and separate items into 'keep' and 'donate' or 'sell' piles.  Even if you're not purchasing new furniture, this fresh start will help mark the transition to college."

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