They’re not known for their luxurious and special living, but the small cinderblock cells that colleges place students in don’t come cheap.

The price tag of housing varies at individual schools and the plans that colleges offer, but The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2011–2012 ranged from $8,887 a year at four-year public schools to $10,089 at private schools.

This hefty price tag can put an added strain on cash-strapped families already stretched thin covering rising tuition prices and lofty book costs. But researching different housing options on and off campus and seeking out assistance from the university’s office of housing can help families stay within their price range. Here are five ways to reduce the cost of college housing.

Comparing housing packages

Students evaluate a school’s housing and meal plans to find the one that best suits their lifestyle and budget.

“Check with current upperclassmen on campus--they have been through the housing loop and likely know the ins and outs,” says Dave Berry, senior advisor at College Confidential. "They probably also know where the deals are.”

If families are looking to cut costs, they may want to consider dorms with fewer amenities like air conditioning or that are farther away from campus.

As most room and board options come with a meal plan, students shouldn’t pay for extensive plans if they won’t be eating every meal on campus, recommends Joe Hurley, founder of SavingforCollege.com

“Students should consider partial meal plans if the full meal plan will not be fully utilized.”

Work in a co-op

Some colleges offer co-op programs that allow students to work service jobs on campus in exchange for reduced housing costs.

At Oberlin College in Ohio, students are able to reap major savings by working four to five hours per week in the kitchen through the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association (OSCA), says OSCA president Paul DeRonne. 

For students who help with food prep and clean up, living and dining in a co-op costs $7,386, which is $5,224 less than living in a campus dorm and dining in campus dining services at Oberlin.

“If you’re willing to put in the time, which is not a huge commitment at all, you could save a lot of money,” says DeRonne. 

Live off campus

Moving off-campus can make financial sense for upperclassmen if the rent is less than a dorm room and if students are able to easily commute back and forth to campus, say the experts.

Having roommates to share expenses and utilities can drive down the cost even more, but choose your co-habitants wisely, warns Berry.

“The most obvious savings would be with the security deposit--responsible roommates don't punch holes in walls, destroy bathroom fixtures, or ruin furniture,” he says.

Berry recommends students approach their landlord with the possibility of helping out with upkeep to the house or apartment (cutting the grass, touching up paint) to negotiate monthly rent.

“This will be a significant advantage when/if it comes time to renew your lease,” he says. “If your landlord is thinking kind thoughts about you and your buddies, then it may be possible to cut down that rent a bit for next year.”

Renting from parents

Depending on a family’s financial situation, it can make sense to purchase a house close to campus, which gives parents equity in the home and can compensate part of the mortgage payment through renting it out to other students as roommates.

“It can be a good investment and a good learning experience for the student who is now responsible for managing the property,” says Hurley. “We helped to finance our own son's purchase of a home when he was a freshman in college.”

Parents should also understand the financial risk involved, says Hurley, including costs for repairs, maintenance, real estate taxes, and insurance, as well as the fact that they could lose equity in the property after the student graduates.

Living at home

For those living in driving distance to campus, living at home can save students thousands of dollars every year, but it’s important to consider the pros and cons of home life vs. school life.

Berry explains that living at home can seem like an extension of high school and that students may miss out on the experience of being on their own.

 “You (and your parents) will be saving a lot of money but you have to consider the tradeoffs regarding your growth in independent living and your social flexibility, both of which can be a big plus when you graduate and have to leave home to begin your life's work.”