Easing the burden: How rent-free living gives students a chance to soar

4 – minute read

Twenty years ago, a partnership between Florida Gulf Coast University and the Southern Scholarship Foundation paved the way for high-achieving students with financial constraints to live rent-free on campus. The nonprofit built a home for 17 students.


Fast forward to a warm and sunny Saturday in February 2024. Dozens gathered for the dedication of the second home, the Malthouse-Pilot Scholarship House. Both houses were built with donations, primarily from the Pilot Scholarship House Foundation of Florida.


Now, as many as 34 FGCU students can focus on their future without going further in debt. For Shawn Woodin, Southern Scholarship’s president and CEO, helping students succeed is personal.


“I grew up in circumstances much like many of the residents with financial constraints, a single mother and sister. I knew at about 10 or 11 years old that I needed an education to get a career and live in a better environment,” he said.

FGCU students living on campus
Twins Kaylin and Kalee Sands have learned a lot of life skills by living in a scholarship house at Florida Gulf Coast University.

How it works


Each year, students submit their applications to Southern Scholarship Foundation. If chosen, they can live in the home their entire college career. House manager Emilee Perry says living rent-free goes beyond just easing her financial burden; it’s given her something even more valuable.


“It’s been the best four years of my life. I’ve made relationships that won’t go away,” said Perry. 


Once unsure of her future, Perry credits her time at the house with helping her focus on a passion and major. She graduates in May with her master’s degree in school counseling. It’s a bittersweet time in her life as she prepares to leave her home – and the close friends she’s made.

sholarship house at FGCU
House manager Emilee Perry and first-year student Kalee Sands at the new scholarship house in North Lake Village.

“I have mixed emotions. It’s exciting to be getting my degree, but sad to leave the people currently there,” said Perry. “However, I’m also excited to see how the house will evolve and change as new people add different layers.”


One of the people she’s leaving behind is Kalee Sands, a first-year student who has come to lean on Perry for support and advice.

“She’s like a mom in a way. I can come to her, I can cry to her, I can express how I feel about a class. She’s always there for me,” said Sands. “She’s just a bright light.”

Kalee and her twin sister, Kaylin, are both scholarship-home recipients. Without having to pay rent, gas and other travel expenses, the Sands siblings have doubled the savings for their mom, a middle school teacher.


The numbers add up


According to a rental index maintained by FGCU’s Lucas Professor of Real Estate Shelton Weeks, Southwest Florida tenants pay an average $2,191 a month on rent. That’s more than people living in Tampa, Orlando or Denver.


For full-time college students like Perry and Sands, rent, utilities, food and transportation costs can be overwhelming. The scholarship houses provide them the financial stability to focus on their studies. Scholarship-house recipients save an average $10,000-$12,000 a year, Woodin says, and 84% of residents in 26 scholarship houses across Florida’s SUS campuses graduate debt-free.

But another goal of the homes is to instill life and leadership skills. Each home has a student house manager who ensures everything runs smoothly while assisting in conflict resolution and time management skills. Students must contribute to the shared utilities and food bills (around $900-$1,000 per semester). They must also contribute to the upkeep of the home. That includes taking on jobs like budgeting, cleaning, cooking and planning group activities.


“Living here has taught me to step up,” said Sands. “I learned about living skills, communication skills, relationship skills — just a lot of things I might not have learned if I had lived somewhere else this year.”


Both scholarship homes on FGCU’s campus are currently female-only. However, one of the houses will be open to men starting this fall, according to Woodin. The deadline for fall applications is April 1.

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