Knowing whether it's cheaper to live on or off campus isn't always straightforward.
The answer will depend on a number of factors, like the housing market near your college, whether you'll need transportation, and if you'll be on a meal plan. Another big consideration? Whether you'll need to sign a 12-month lease for an off-campus rental.
Let's look at each option in depth to help you understand which is less expensive for your particular situation.
How will you pay for housing?
Before you start researching apartments or planning your dorm room decorations, consider how you're planning to pay for housing and whether that will impact your options.
For instance, some merit-based scholarship awards from colleges require that students live on campus to remain eligible for funding.
If you're planning to use federal financial aid to pay for your housing, you'll be able to apply that money toward either on-campus or off-campus housing. That doesn't necessarily mean you'll get enough aid to cover the cost of any housing you want. You'll receive a standard amount meant to cover the cost of off-campus housing in your area.
If you're using money from a 529 plan, you can spend those funds on on-campus or off-campus housing. However, if you choose off-campus housing, any costs beyond what it would cost to live in on-campus housing are considered non-qualified distributions and are subject to taxes.
The costs of off-campus housing
Of course, you might begin your research by looking at the cost of room and board at your college and then searching apartment ads to see whether monthly rental costs are more or less than the cost of living on campus.
And that will provide you some useful information, but it may not give you the whole story. Your on-campus housing covers a number of things that you'll probably be responsible for if you rent your own housing.
12 months of rent
The biggest expense with off-campus housing may be that you're often required to sign a 12-month lease, whether you plan on attending summer classes or not. Some landlords may allow you to sublet the apartment while you're not there, but there's no guarantee that you'll be able to find a willing candidate. Your best bet is to ensure that you have enough funding to cover the entire 12 months — and to carefully consider whether it's worth paying rent for time you won't be in the apartment.
Most landlords require a security deposit, usually equal to one month's rent. And you generally have to pay it at the same time as your first month's rent — so you're making a double rent payment right up front.
If you leave the apartment in the same condition you found it, the landlord is required to return the security deposit. But you're essentially making an interest-free loan to your landlord the whole time you're renting.
Utilities and maintenance
Living on campus, you won't be paying a separate fee for utilities like electricity, gas, trash pick-up, water, or internet. But those could be additional costs if you rent housing off campus.
Each landlord can decide whether they include utilities in the price of rent or not, so look carefully at ads and leases.
And while this consideration is not entirely financial, most colleges have large facilities and maintenance departments that deal with any housing issues. They check dorms regularly to make sure things are functioning properly (like the plumbing, the heat, the locks on the doors).
Some landlords are excellent at maintaining their properties, and some are not. The time spent trying to get a landlord to come fix your toilet (and the days of not being able to use it) gets really old really fast. Before signing a lease, see if you can learn anything about the reputation of the building and/or the building owner from other students.
Some schools allow you to pay separately for housing and meals, but for many, three meals a day are part of the housing package.
If you forgo on-campus meals, you'll need to buy your own food. And even if you can get a meal plan without staying on campus, consider whether you'll be on campus to use it. For instance, if you're back at your apartment by 4:00 every afternoon, you may not want to head back to campus for dinner.
Whether you're planning to bring a car to college or not, the costs of transportation can increase significantly when you live off campus if you need to drive or take public transportation to and from classes.
Apartments that are within walking distance of colleges often have a higher rent because they're more appealing to students for exactly this reason.
If living off campus means that you have to bring (and even purchase) a car that you wouldn't have otherwise brought, the transportation costs rise significantly — the cost of gas, car insurance, parking, and possibly a car payment.
Dorm room furniture may not be the most stylish, but it is included in the cost of the room. Some dorms even have common areas with televisions and shared kitchens stocked with basic cookware.
Unless you're looking at furnished apartments, you'll have to buy at least some furniture, move it into the apartment, and plan to take it with you (or sell it) when you leave.
You may discover that your high school best friend is the perfect college roommate. Or you may find that your friendship is best enjoyed from a distance.
If your roommate chooses to move out while you live on campus, you are not responsible for continuing to pay their portion of the "rent." On the flip side, you may end up with a new roommate mid-semester.
But if you're rooming together in off-campus housing, you'll either need to pay their portion of the rent or find a new roommate. In some college towns, certain landlords and rental properties cater specifically to students by allowing each roommate to sign a separate lease. Again, read ads and leases carefully.
The costs of on-campus housing
On-campus housing is often less expensive than renting a house or an apartment off campus — but not always. Depending on the housing market around the college, students can sometimes find great deals. And like off-campus housing, there are costs to choosing to live on campus that aren't immediately obvious.
Paying for housing
Whether it's cheaper than renting an apartment or not, staying in the college dorm costs money. If you have the option to live with family or friends and not pay rent at all (or just pay a very small amount), you can drastically reduce the cost of your college education.
See also: How Other People are Paying for College
Meal plans provide you three certain meals a day, but you might be paying for more than you actually eat. If you never make it to the cafeteria in time for breakfast, then you're paying for an extra meal every day of the week.
You may also find that the meals don't appeal to your tastes or your needs, especially if you have special dietary requirements — so you buy food at the grocery store or go out to eat anyway.
Be honest about your habits, and research your options. Some schools allow you to do partial meal plans — like just lunch or meals only during weekdays.
At many colleges, you cannot continue living in the dorm during school breaks or during the summer.
If you're not planning to live at home during those breaks (for instance, if you have a local internship or job), you'll need to find short-term housing, which can sometimes be more expensive or difficult to find than longer-term housing.
Should you live on campus or off campus?
Everyone's situation is unique. Research the factors above and determine what's most cost-effective for you.
But don't forget to consider non-financial factors as well. Some students choose on-campus housing because they don't want the hassle of looking for an apartment or because they want to be in the middle of all the social opportunities that college can offer. And some students choose off-campus housing because they like to have their own quiet space away from the activity of dorm life.
There are students who just don't feel ready for the responsibility of paying their own rent or dealing with a landlord. In fact, some schools require students, especially freshman, to live on campus. And some schools provide on-campus options that are more like apartments.
Consider your options carefully, and remember that those college costs will turn into student loan payments in just a few years.
And if you're trying to fill last minute funding gaps for college, our free guide has you covered.