Is It Cheaper to Live on or Off-Campus?

Cost of living in a Dorm

Colleges use the term “room and board” to calculate the cost of housing and what they really mean is food and shelter. Room and board includes the cost of a dorm room plus the average priced meal plan. Utilities are also included in that cost; internet should be covered by the free campus Wi-Fi and cable is usually free, though sometimes with a one-time connection fee of about $50.

Average cost of room and board:

  • $8,887 per school year at public colleges and universities
  • $10,089 per school year at private colleges and universities

Keep in mind that is only for the fall and spring semester. Residence halls are closed for holidays. Thus, average room and board only covers housing costs for about 9 months. That works out to $987/month at public universities and $1,121/month at private universities.

If that cost seems a little high and you still want your son or daughter on campus, have them apply to become a resident assistant (RA). Depending on the university, RA’s can get free room and board and in some cases a monthly stipend. The drawback is that you have to police an entire floor of college students and take on a few other responsibilities that get time consuming.  Check with campus housing for credit and GPA requirements if you are interested.

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Laundry Facilities

Homestead, Meadow and Prairie Halls offer laundry facilities that integrate with an app to pay-as-you-go. The app also provides notifications when your laundry cycle is complete. Coins can be used for those who do not want to use the app. Coin-operated washers and dryers are available in the other residence halls for student use.

Choosing the Best Option

Once you consider both living options, considering the cost of rent, meal plans, and other bills, as well as the convenience of each, it’s time to make a decision. In many cases, it is easier to live on campus because you can spend most of your time focused on your schoolwork. It's also generally a good idea to live on campus your first year because it will help you form friendships, and it is easier to adjust to college life that way.

But if you are paying for school by yourself, you may need to choose the most inexpensive option. If you are working while attending school, your job may influence where you live and what type of meal plan will work the best for you. The costs may be close enough that you can make the decision based on convenience.

The costs of on-campus housing

On-campus housing is often less expensive than renting a house or an apartment off campus — but not always. Depending on the housing market around the college, students can sometimes find great deals. And like off-campus housing, there are costs to choosing to live on campus that aren’t immediately obvious. 

Paying for housing

Whether it’s cheaper than renting an apartment or not, staying in the college dorm costs money. If you have the option to live with family or friends and not pay rent at all (or just pay a very small amount),  you can drastically reduce the cost of your college education.

See also: How Other People are Paying for College

Meals

Meal plans provide you three certain meals a day, but you might be paying for more than you actually eat. If you never make it to the cafeteria in time for breakfast, then you’re paying for an extra meal every day of the week.

You may also find that the meals don’t appeal to your tastes or your needs, especially if you have special dietary requirements — so you buy food at the grocery store or go out to eat anyway.

Be honest about your habits, and research your options. Some schools allow you to do partial meal plans — like just lunch or meals only during weekdays. 

Academic schedules

At many colleges, you cannot continue living in the dorm during school breaks or during the summer.

If you’re not planning to live at home during those breaks (for instance, if you have a local internship or job), you’ll need to find short-term housing, which can sometimes be more expensive or difficult to find than longer-term housing. 

Is it always cheaper off campus? No

New York City is one of the priciest and most competitive rental markets, so students attending college at highly competitive and expensive institutions such as New York University or Columbia University may breathe a sigh of relief knowing they have on-campus living options. In fact, the weekly room rate at Columbia’s freshman dorms is a couple of hundred dollars cheaper than one person’s share of rent on a median-priced two-person, two-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, according to the June 2021 Elliman Report, a monthly rental market report. However, the difference is negligible between several of NYU’s freshman dorms and that same median rent.

The COVID pandemic brought with it slowed rent growth and even declines in many urban centers, according to data from Realtor.com. As of May, some pricey metro areas including New York City, San Francisco and San Jose are still seeing rents lower than last year. Students able to freely participate in local rental markets may have been able to lock in rents lower than what they’d pay in the dorms, even in big cities.

These big cities often have extreme housing prices, and students in more representative college towns across the country would likely find more comparable prices when weighing dorm costs against local rentals.

App State is a public four-year college nestled in the mountains of Western North Carolina. It’s a gorgeous place and a welcoming institution. The mascot is a Mountaineer named Yosef wearing a flannel shirt and a beard, for crying out loud. And their football is some of the best. Go ‘Neers! The freshman dorm my daughter was assigned to in 2019-20 opened to students in 1970 and doesn’t have air conditioning. The weekly rate there is roughly $50 more than that of one person’s share of a two-bedroom rental, according to Census data. Her sophomore year, she managed to find a shared four-bedroom home, where her portion of the rent is about $140 per week, and includes parking and all utilities.

Consider the Costs of Extras

Another thing to consider when deciding whether to live on or off-campus is the extra costs of living for which you will be responsible. Generally, the dorm will cover all of your utility costs and internet fees. Your off-campus apartment will probably not. Consider how much each of these expenses will cost when comparing the costs of these two living options.

Additionally, you need to decide if you will need to pay extra for transportation if you are going to live off-campus. If you have a car, you will need to pay for gas, insurance, and parking costs. Otherwise, you may need to pay for bus fees, unless you are within walking distance of the campus. Keep in mind that rents in apartments closer to campus will likely be higher since students find it a more desirable area. You may also need to secure renters insurance if living in an off-campus apartment or house.

Student Loan Rules About Student Housing

If you already have student loans, like a 529 plan or another college savings plan, this may limit where you’re allowed to live. Some student loans have rules that govern where students live or how much money is allotted to off-campus housing.  Sometimes the rules allow only on-campus housing.

This is a tricky trade-off: you might find less-expensive housing off-campus, but you’d be paying out of pocket for it. Or you could incur penalties by breaching the terms of your student loan. That’s when you have to decide whether or not it’s worth it to scrape together the extra cash for off-campus living.

Sometimes, it’s just easier to swallow the terms and conditions of the student loan and live on campus in a dorm.

Getty Images | Ian Waldie
Getty Images | Ian Waldie

Does financial aid cover off-campus housing?

If you plan to live off campus, you’ll need to indicate that when filing your FAFSA. The financial aid calculations are different for students that live in off-campus housing.

You should also check to make sure your financial aid and tuition plans cover off-campus housing. Direct student loans, 529 plans and prepaid tuition plans have certain rules about how the money is allowed to be used.

Direct student loans are deposited directly into a student’s bank account, and the money can be used for any expenses related to education including off-campus living.

A 529 plan can be used for off-campus housing for students that are enrolled in at least half the hours that define a fulltime student. But there is a catch. For off-campus housing, the student can only withdraw up to the amount the college or university budgets for in the room and board section of its cost of attendance.

Some prepaid tuition plans offered by states also have dormitory plans that only cover the cost of living in dorms. Research your tuition plan to see if it covers off-campus housing. If it doesn’t, you should be able to request a refund.

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