Great Housing Debate: Living On or Off Campus

With a busy class schedule, course work and study sessions, choosing the best living environment is an integral part of students’ academic success and financial stability throughout college.

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Students facing the option to live on or off campus should consider the differences in cost and convenience between the two housing options, including social implications and proximity to campus.

Making a list of pros and cons for each can help students and families make a better informed decision, recommends Veronica Montalvo, senior vice president and interim director of Main Campus Admissions at Post University.

“Consider pursuing the housing environment that is most appropriate for their personality, and level of responsibility,” she says.

Although typically small, dorm rooms aren’t exactly cheap. The average cost of room and board in 2012–2013 ranged from $9,205 at four-year public schools and $10,462 at private schools, according to the College Board.

“While living on campus is certainly more convenient in regards to being close to all of their academic buildings, if commuting makes more fiscal sense, then students should definitely place importance on finding alternate places to live,” says Laura Sestito, production and editorial coordinator at NextStepU.

Here are four financial considerations students should weigh when comparing on campus to off campus living.

Cost Factor No. 1: Amenities

Many costs like cable, internet, electricity, garbage and parking are rolled into the price of on-campus housing, but are most likely separate bills with off-campus rentals, says Jerry Slavonia, CEO of Campus Explorer.

“Some rentals will include some of these utilities in the rent, but students should compare the local rates and how much it would cost with their roommates off-campus to see which is cheaper per month,” he says.

On-campus living can be a more economical option than renting an apartment or house alone or with roommates in pricier real estate areas—take time to research preferred areas and what it will cost, suggests Montalvo.

Cost Factor No. 2: Eating Habits

Meal plans are often part of the school’s housing package and can make financial sense for students living in the dorms, but full-time students can usually opt for a partial meal plan if they live off campus.

“They can sign up for a few meals per week or less that they can grab on the way to class or any other time they are on campus,” says Sestito.

Should students decide that buying groceries and cooking is a better option, it’s crucial to keep a budget in mind, says Stephanie Kaplan, CEO of Her Campus Media

“Be realistic about how much you will grocery shop and cook for yourself if you live off campus, as opposed to just ordering takeout or going out to eat, which can get expensive fast,” she says.

Cost Factor No. 3: Proximity to Campus and Transportation

Students should consider how close they’ll be to campus when making a housing decision, especially when it comes to the cost and their time demands.

“Think about your class schedule, extracurricular obligations, campus jobs you hold, and social life, and what will be most convenient so that you're not constantly running around or having to pack a bag in the morning to carry you through all your evening activities because your housing is too far away from campus for it to be worth going back,” says Kaplan.

A longer commute can require students to either have a car on campus or take some form of public transportation.

“Parking, tickets, auto maintenance and fuel are very expensive and if there’s a way for students to use public transportation that is more time- and cost-efficient, they should choose the option that suits their needs best,” says Slavonia.

Cost Factor No. 4: Sharing Space, Costs with Roommates

While all associated costs for on campus living are paid at the beginning of the semester, giving students peace of mind for a few months, upperclassmen considering off campus housing must consistently stick with a monthly budget to ensure all costs are covered, Sestito points out.

“If you're living by yourself, you have to hold yourself accountable to pay every month and you need to find a place that can afford you to do that,” she says. “If you live with roommates, you'll likely be splitting the monthly check--you have to consider how much you can rely on your roommates to pay for your housing in a timely fashion.”

Students returning home during school breaks should also factor in the amount of time they will actually be living in a house or apartment off campus, says Kaplan.

“Consider what the dates of the lease will be if you live off campus, and if you're going to have to deal with finding a subletter over the summer, which can be an added stressor.”