What Is Room and Board?

room and board costs

When you’re looking at how much it costs to send your child to college, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the added charges and fees that show up on the tuition bill.

Not only will you be factoring in attendance charges from the institution itself, but you’ll also have to consider additional costs like textbooks, transportation, and other expenses.

As you begin to break down the direct cost of admission, questions about room and board fees will likely arise. Here’s what you need to know:

What Is Room and Board?

  • “Room” is exactly what it sounds like. It’s the cost for a college student’s dorm room, as well as the expense the university takes to maintain the functionality of the dorm buildings and suites. These living spaces generally come furnished with a desk, bed, dresser/wardrobe, and potentially other small pieces of furniture. Most colleges also provide amenities, and the room will cover indirect costs such as wi-fi and water.
  • “Board” refers to a student’s meal plan. Students are given a card to swipe at campus cafeterias, providing them access to meals. Some colleges give a set number of meals, while others are unlimited, and different meal plans offer five- or seven-day availability based on the student’s commuter status. 

How Much Does Room and Board Cost?

Each college has a different process for calculating the cost of room and board, but the price per year or semester will depend on certain factors. Students can choose to live in a private room or with roommates, and different housing options across the campus will have different rates.

College costs for “board” are also flexible based on student options.

Colleges may offer different meal payment plan options based on the number of swipes at the dining hall or available days on campus. It’s important to consider this when figuring out whether your student will need to pursue financial aid or a student loan.

Students who attend a private university tend to pay more for room and board. In fact, the Education Data Initiative estimates that the average cost of attendance (including tuition and additional fees) for a 4-year public institution is $25,487 for an in-state student and $43,161 for out-of-state—compared to $53,217 for a 4-year private non-profit institution and $35,125 for a private for-profit.  A scholarship can help offset these costs to reduce the amount of student loan debt.

The price of room and board is often based on location. That is, students attending schools in large urban areas are more likely to pay higher housing rates than those in out-of-the way, rural areas.

Are Room and Board Required?

It’s not unheard of for colleges to require students to live and eat on campus for their freshman year in order to get them familiarized with the campus and engaged in social activities.

Some campuses have extended that requirement to sophomore and junior years. There are various exceptions for students who commute or attend college part-time.

Many room and board policies are currently under debate as universities decide how to incorporate remote learning and digital classrooms. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, some universities offered student account refunds for room and board costs when students were sent home.

What Are the Advantages and Disadvantages of Room and Board?

Generally, the cost of room and board is higher than the average cost of a student cooking for themselves and living in an apartment. However, the flat predetermined rate of the college’s room and board may be appealing to students who want to calculate their personal expenses in advance, especially when they’re trying to determine whether they need financial aid. Some scholarship funds can be used toward on-campus housing costs but not off-campus lodging and living expenses.

Living on campus also provides the advantage of being close to classes and campus activities. Students who are anxious about being in a new environment may enjoy living with fellow students who are in the same situation, and may be more inclined to become involved with clubs and study groups.

Not only will living on campus cut down commuting time, but it will also save on utilities like laundry and internet, which are usually not included in off-campus rent. For an additional payment plan fee, some schools also provide a cleaning staff. 

When considering a college, take a look at the percentage of students who live on campus versus those who commute, and what resources the campus offers. A student’s living situation can dramatically impact their overall college experience.

How Do I Budget for Room and Board?

The way colleges break down their costs (per academic year or credit hour) is not always clear, and parents sometimes wonder whether room and board are included as part of the tuition “package.”  The answer is yes, sort of.

College tuition calculators will factor the cost of room and board into the average rates they present to students, but this can either represent the on-campus room and board cost, or the average cost a student would spend if they were cooking for themselves or living in an apartment.

Although cooking and living independently may be cheaper, it may not offer the same consistent value a school’s room and board guarantees.

If needed, students can use financial aid, such as loans, scholarship awards, or grant money, to help pay the cost of room and board fees.

Once it’s clear how room and board are handled by your child’s individual college, your student can then make plans for their fall and spring semesters at that school. 

Dorm Room Advice From Parents

After the financial details of room and board are out of the way, the social and “comfort” aspects of residence life can be considered.

Assuming your student has the opportunity to choose their own residence hall and dorm room, advice from other families who have gone through the process can be helpful. Many of the parents in our Paying For College 101 Facebook group were eager to share their tips:

“If you Google school and dorm names, you’ll find YouTube student videos with their commentary.” — Jo Ann

“Don’t pick a room near the stairwell. Door banging all night long.” — Barbara

“Sounds silly, but consider which direction the windows face, if there will be good natural sunlight. Sophomore year at college, my window faced into a building courtyard where all the sunlight was blocked and it was really dreary.” — Jennifer

“Join their parent page and ask (your dorm questions) on that.” — Jennifer

Knowing what room and board are is half the battle. Once you learn how your child’s school calculates room and board, you can begin to budget accordingly—or calculate whether living off-campus (if possible) would be more cost effective.

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