On-Campus vs. Off-Campus Living: Which Is Cheaper? (Tips, Pros & Cons)

by Reader Contributors

On Campus vs Off Campus Housing photo

College is expensive enough without overpaying for housing. Our frugal readers, both students and parents of students and even some college professionals, weigh in on whether it is cheaper to live on campus of off and well as some pros and cons of both.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
Our daughter will be heading off to college in about six months and we are trying to determine her likely budget and what it will cost us. Does anyone know if it is cheaper to live on-campus or off-campus at most state universities?

It seems that the on-campus costs are set when it comes to campus housing/dorms and meal plans. I feel like we would have more control over these costs if she lived off-campus. She’d have more options for cheaper housing and keeping food costs lower. Have any other parents or college students found this to be true? She will have a car so transportation costs will be about the same no matter where she lives.

Are there any other costs we need to consider to effectively compare on-campus vs. off-campus living? Thanks so much.

What’s Required?

Before making a decision, please check with your university. Some universities require freshman to live on campus for the first year. If yours does too, that is one less decision you’ll have to make.

Off-Campus Living Costs Are Paid Up Front

We have found that in the first year for most colleges, the students are required to stay in dorms. After that, it is much cheaper to live off campus. The one thing to remember is the apartment cost, food, and utilities have to be paid immediately. These costs are not rolled into the student loan.

Insider Advice: Get All the Facts

I work at a four-year college/university in financial aid and am often asked this question.

The most important thing is to make sure you compare apples to apples and not apples to oranges. I tell my students to consider all factors when making this kind of decision. Depending on the commute, consider the length of commute, time, weather, and gas/car maintenance to drive to campus daily. Also, consider if the student will have a job and how far the job will be from the college. Will the off-campus location have to be completely furnished? If so, how will the student furnish it? What about laundry facilities and computer/internet access and library availability?

Time also needs to be considered as this can cut into study time. Will the student be involved in various on-campus and sports activities? If so, the student may not want have to drive back late at night. Make sure to compare housing and meal ticket costs (and what all is provided to the student by living on-campus) to rent, utilities, food, internet, cable, etc. off-campus costs. How is the cost going to be covered? Refunds might be larger when a student lives off-campus, enhancing the need to learn to budget very carefully.

Most financial aid is disbursed shortly after the semester starts, and unless the student receives aid later in the semester, this may be their only disbursement, but rent and utility costs are monthly. The student will have a cost of attendance or budget that factors in housing and meal costs whether it is on-campus or off-campus.

One major factor to consider is whether the university will allow lower classmen (freshmen/sophomores) to live off-campus. Many do not permit younger students to do so.

Also consider the length of housing contract and the cost of breaking a contract if the student doesn’t like the location, etc. Many times, when students and parents compare all costs, living off-campus is not cost effective, especially when convenience is factored in. Students and parents should have all the facts in order to make such an important decision.

Safety Must Be Considered

My daughter lived on campus the first two years and then moved off campus. We found the costs to be more. She lived in a college town, and the rents weren’t cheap. We had to get her a car in order for her to live off campus, so this added to the cost. However, you mentioned that your child would have a car regardless. In your case, I think the costs would be the same.

When she went to college, they had different meal plans. She was not a big eater, so we saved on the cheaper meal plan. If she is going to cook her own food off-campus, you will save. Many students eat out all the time, and that will end up being more expensive than when they lived on campus. I would advise getting your daughter a slow cooker and, if you can afford it, an electric multi-cooker.

Putting costs aside, I would think about the safety of the neighborhood. There is security on campus; there isn’t outside. If you are concerned about your child’s welfare, you might want to have him or her stay on campus. My daughter’s neighborhood was safe enough for me to allow her to move off-campus.

I do think most students enjoy the experience of living on their own. You can’t really put a price on that. When they get to be juniors and seniors, they really don’t want to be living in the dorms anymore with the freshmen and sophomores. If you can afford it, I would let your child live off-campus.

Rent a Room within Walking Distance

Since we kept a foreign exchange student in our home in the past, I thought that surely someone near her college campus would want to have a college student live with them. Sure enough, word got out and a professor and his wife contacted us. They made a generous offer for our young daughter to “rent” a room in their century home within walking distance of college all four years! It cost us $200 per month for her housing, and a lifelong friendship was established.

Interested in Sorority Life?

All of the colleges my daughter looked at required freshman to live at home or on campus. My daughter will rush a sorority, which will cost more the first year. However, after her first year of school, she can move into a sorority house, which is less expensive than the dorms in the end.

It’s Easier to Get Involved While Living On Campus

It is going to come down to where the college is located. Is it primarily a college town, so the people that have rental houses know they can charge what they want? Or is it a larger metropolitan city with a lot of available housing?

Depending on the size of the school, living on campus can be a big advantage because it is easier to get involved or do last minute things on campus without having to drive there. I lived on campus for two years and off for two years, and while both were good, living on campus allowed me to get more involved and get to know more people who I am still friends with today.
Leslie in Arlington, TX

Think Outside the Box

My coworker had an amazing deal for off campus living. Her college had a student mobile home park, which it ran and policed, so the place was very safe. Her parents bought a used single wide. Even though it was fairly new and in good condition, her parents got a steal of a deal for their daughter. She rented out the spare bedrooms to other students. She had to pay nominal park rent, utilities, and payments to her parents for the mobile home. The rent from the others helped defray the costs.

When she graduated, she moved the mobile home to a safe, clean park near her new job. By then, all she had to pay was park rent and utilities. She later got married to a guy whose parents owned some acreage. They had a concrete pad poured on their ranch, put in utility hookups, and the mobile home served as the couple’s first home. Counting college, this gal lived in that single wide ten or twelve years. All in all, I think she got her money’s worth from it!

Be Mindful of the Variables

There are so many variables! There’s the cost of rent and utilities (not to forget internet, of course!), food, and transportation, which can only be calculated in your community, according to your space and safety needs. My daughter is going to the university in our city, but she will be living on campus. My daughter and I talked about:

  • The time cost: Yes, you can cook your own meals cheaply, but that also means time spent to get the groceries, prepare them, and utilize with minimal waste. Can you juggle this with other time commitments? Consider, too, commuter time. Homework loads can be heavy. Be time savvy.
  • Reality check: One might intend to prepare a sack lunch or supper for class days, but will it really happen? Or are you more likely to visit the cafeteria or a campus spot, no matter where you live? That negates some perceived savings.
  • Car need: Does the student really need a car on campus? Campuses that aren’t easily walkable generally have bus or other service. Having a car adds insurance and parking expenses, in addition to gas and repairs. Park it at home. Be a student, not a driver.
  • Networking costs: Living on campus opens you to more friendships and opportunities. Set up your adult connections. Invest in campus living, responsibly.
  • Learning curve: Dorms offer a good bridge for learning skills necessary for adult living and offer it in a (potentially) supportive environment with peers also learning along with you. Take advantage of the hive mind.

Martha in Madison, WI

A College Professor Shares His Thoughts

I am a college professor and this is what I have seen with my students:

  1. Those who have an apartment often work more hours (or even a second job) to support the apartment.
  2. They often have fights with their roommates over bills that need to be paid or food of theirs that has been eaten (and not replaced) by the roommate. One even ran out of toilet paper and more was not purchased for over a week (no idea what they did in the meantime).
  3. Students who live in the dorms for at least one year have a better social life and thus adapt to college living better.
  4. Those who lived in apartments say they met many of their friends in the dorms.
  5. I believe, personally, that living in a dorm for at least one year is part of the college experience that should not be missed.
  6. After one year, a student can become a resident advisor (a monitoring job for a few floors of a dorm) and have their room paid for as part of their salary.

These are things that I have seen in my 30 years of teaching.

Dorm Life Helps in Making the Adjustment

Because rental housing prices can vary widely from city to city, on-campus housing may be affordable, especially in the dorms. You also have to consider the additional furniture, kitchen equipment, etc. needed if your daughter is living in an apartment instead of a dorm. Another factor to consider is the over-all college experience. For freshman, living in the dorms gives students a better opportunity to make friends, feel connected to the university, and experience college life.

It also allows them to adjust a bit more slowly to being away from home for the first time. They will have to manage their time, clean their rooms, and do their laundry, which for some is a big change. It can be an easier adjustment if they don’t have to take on cooking and grocery shopping right away. After her first year, she will likely have made friends that she wants to share an apartment with the next year and will also have a better idea about desirable neighborhoods and costs.

Reviewed June 2021

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