Though some attending college locally will have the opportunity to stay with their families during at least part of their college years, for the millions of freshmen who attend college across the state or out of state, it’s just not feasible.
Two options stand out for freshmen living away from home: dorm housing and living off campus. But what are the benefits and disadvantages of both? And how do you tackle housing costs when your major goal is saving money on room and board, especially when college costs are already so high?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of dorm and off-campus living, it’s worth starting off with some essential definitions.
For the purposes of this article, “dorm living” is synonymous with college or university-owned buildings, while “off-campus living” refers to buildings off-campus that are not college or university-owned.
This distinction is important because, contrary to what you may believe, often colleges will host dorms that are technically located offsite, sometimes miles away from the campus center.
Benefits of Off-Campus Living
Some schools invest a lot of money in their dorms to give their students a luxury college experience. For example, individual dorms may offer onsite gyms, pools—even rock climbing walls or gaming rooms.
However, all these extras come with a financial cost—a hefty housing price tag.
In situations like this—or even in less extreme cases—off-campus housing can be much cheaper.
To start, you’ll also have more flexibility with how rent gets split. You can also save money by choosing how many roommates you want to live with, including how many of you will share a room. In college dorms on the other hand, the number of people per room is mandated by the school.
Often, there’s a flat price for a “multiple” dorm—meaning you’ll be paying the same price whether you share a single room with one other person (in a double), or three (a triple). Sound fair? Didn’t think so.
Benefits of Dorm Living
In areas with high rents, living in a dorm may be the cheaper option. For example, in schools located within the most expensive cities in the U.S.—such as New York or San Francisco—up to 99% of students will stay in dorm housing for their entire college career, often due to the cost of off-campus living.
Further, even if dorm housing is more expensive at your particular college, this higher price might come with added, practical benefits.
Dorms typically come with (free) laundry services, and additional facilities such as A/C or Internet service are already included in the price. These fees won’t be hidden in the way they can be with apartment rates.
One of the best ways to save money on room and board is to apply to be a Resident Assistant, or RA.
As an RA, you’ll be responsible for supervising, and living alongside, students in college residence halls. One of the major benefits of being an RA is that most schools will offer you free housing, meaning that you could save thousands of dollars, and some schools also offer an additional stipend.
Each school’s eligibility requirements and application is different, so don’t be afraid to ask the RA in your own residence hall for assistance. However, RA positions aren’t open to freshmen, so you’ll have to work something different out for your first year.
Further, for students on financial aid, free RA housing and the work stipend can sometimes affect your aid award. Be sure to talk to your school’s office of financial aid to see how being an RA might impact you.
Considering the Commute
Benefits of Off-Campus Living
Though not all off-campus housing is necessarily farther than dorm housing, having a bit of a physical break from your classroom space may help you take a mental break as well.
In fact, having some distance from your college campus can give you a taste of living in the real world. Believe it or not, a short commute away from your academic life can make doing your laundry, cooking, and shopping for groceries feel more like adulting than doing the same exact activities while living on campus.
This partly because of the fact that you’ll be around non-students while you’re doing them. The magic of distance!
Additionally, in some cases, off-campus housing may be more convenient than dorm housing. As mentioned previously, some dorms are actually located off campus—sometimes a fairly significant distance.
At my small liberal arts college, there’s one dorm notorious for being almost a mile from campus (it’s farther away than the campus is wide!), while at larger state schools, dorms can be miles away from even the edge of campus.
If distance is an issue for you, there might be a nice apartment just 0.1 miles from the campus edge.
If you’re self-conscious about not living on campus, rest assured that you’re probably not the only one not living in a dorm. Some schools, such as those in suburban locations, may have a very high proportion of commuters, with many students choosing to live at home and forgo the cost of finding housing entirely.
In such cases, choosing to commute may be not only the more practical option, but one that will make sense to the rest of the student body.
Benefits of Dorm Living
Though it definitely depends on individual campus layouts, living in a dorm probably puts you closer to your classes. However, especially with larger college campuses, you should really do your research on where your classes are before selecting dormitory housing.
Classes in certain disciplines (e.g., science, humanities, social sciences, etc.) are more likely to be hosted in the same buildings, so that’s worth considering before signing a housing contract.
Living in a dorm with other students can also be a gateway to making friends, especially during the first year of college. Being forced to live together under one roof gives new students who’ve never lived away from home before a sense of camaraderie.
You’ll collectively figure out how often you should do your laundry (hint: more often than you think), share showers, and pass each other in the hallways. While many friendships will be formed this way, dorm living will also give you important life skills regarding conflict resolution and mutual respect.
Some Additional Practical Considerations
With all these financial and commuting considerations in mind, it’s important to remember one major caveat: dorm living may be mandatory for freshmen at some campuses.
If that’s the case at your school, it will mean that you have less flexibility with your budget in terms of dorm costs. However, there are often a variety of pricing options for different types of dorms, so your flexibility won’t be completely taken away.
Additionally, some schools require students living in specific dorms to purchase additional amenities. Some college dorms require residents to purchase specific meal plans, often based on the number of kitchens available to residents.
These are all factors you should take into account when planning your housing costs.
Putting it All Together
Here are the key takeaways when deciding to live on or off-campus:
- Compare the average apartment costs within a few miles of your school to housing costs at all of your school’s dorms. Be aware that housing costs can vary significantly across neighborhoods, so you may be able to get more bang for your buck in an area on one end or campus vs. the other.
- Look for whether or not facilities, meal plans, and other amenities are included in the housing costs of the building you’re looking at.
- Consider how important it is to you to be near campus. It might be key for you to be able to roll out of bed and show up to class in five minutes. Or maybe you’re fine with having a bit more distance from classroom buildings in order to get a sense of independence.
Remember that commute times can vary wildly, and not always based on raw distance— commuting to college from a building five miles from campus may be a complete breeze if it’s located right next to a subway, bus stop, or rideshare hub.
And remember — the best way to make sure you save money on housing costs is to do your research beforehand.
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This post was written by Jennifer Kaplan, a senior studying Comparative Literature and Political Science at Barnard College. She’s worked as a tutor, helping students with the Common App.