The Pros and Cons of Dorm-life vs. Living at Home: What Makes Sense?

Carol Katarsky Updated on November 4, 2020

We’ve all heard the cliché: Living on campus is an essential part of the college experience. But is it really?

Turns out, roughly half of college students don’t live on campus (it happens slightly more often at public schools than private ones.) With good reason: On average, living on campus can add about $10k per year to your kid’s college costs. 

From a pure dollars-and-cents perspective, living at home may be a no-brainer, but it comes with trade-offs. Any student can have a great college experience no matter where they live, but the on-campus experience will be different than living at home.

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Here’s what you need to know to help your teen make the right call for their unique needs.

How COVID-19 affects your decision

First, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room: With COVID-19 still a risk and many colleges closing facilities, living on campus may not be an option. If that is your situation, skip this section and read the rest of the article for making the best of the situation.

If your child can live on campus but you’re not sure if they should, consider the following factors, based on CDC advice:

  • Are you, your student, or other household members at increased health risk from COVID-19? Are you a caregiver for any at-risk people who don’t live in your home?
  • What is the level of community spread in your area vs. the college? (Even if the school is very close, transmission rates can vary widely even within sections of the same city. Check your state or county department of health for the latest details.)
  • Is anyone in the home an essential worker or have other increased exposure risks?
  • If needed, how feasible is effective virtual learning in your home? (Does your student have access to a quiet work area during class time, reliable internet access, etc.?)
  • How comfortable are you with the college’s plans to minimize risk? (You can compare it to the CDC’s guidelines for colleges and universities.)

Every family has to make their own call about the relative risks and rewards of being on campus in the COVID-19 era. There are more mundane considerations, too.  

Top benefits of living at home

Your teen – maybe even you – may have envisioned the picture-perfect on-campus experience. Don’t forget half of students live at home because it has very tangible benefits. Among them:

  • Better balance. At home, students can focus more easily without worrying about dorm distractions. When they need a break, it’s easier to disconnect if the building where they have a big exam the next day isn’t visible from their bedroom.
  • Family support. College is stressful! From healthier dinners to having family, pets, and other familiar comforts around, living at home can make the transition easier for students.
  • Flexibility. Living at home means not being burdened with dorm rules, food plans, and whether you’re allowed a car.
  • Logistically easier. Living at home means not having to essentially pack up and move back home two or more times a year.

That covers the day-to-day, but perhaps the biggest benefit to living at home can’t truly be appreciated until after graduation. The more money your student can save now, the less likely they are to need to move back home after graduation.

When calculating your expenses, make sure you include costs associated with staying at home. It’s cheap, but not free. Utilities, food, and especially commuting/car-related costs need to be included to give you the most accurate picture of the potential savings. 

Which is best for your child?

We’ve covered some of the pros and cons, but the decision to live at home or on campus is highly individual. Factors you’ll want to ensure your child is considering include:

  • How much socialization do they need? Will going to class and coming home to work feel comfortable or leave them feeling isolated from their peers?
  • Are they a joiner? Kids who want to be deeply involved in lots clubs/organizations will have a much easier time doing that from on campus.
  • How independent are they? Can they self-direct when it’s time to focus or do they need external reinforcement?
  • How strong is their desire for the traditional “college experience?”

Get the full experience from home

If your student opts to live at home, there are adjustments they can make to ensure they get as much from their college years as they’d hoped. Living on campus immerses students in the life and culture of the college. Off-campus learners just have to make some extra effort.

For starters, encourage your child to go to orientations and sign up for clubs of interest. Many colleges have an organization specifically for commuting students, which is an obvious first stop.

If possible, your student should try to get a job on campus (or at a college-oriented business nearby). It’s a chance to earn money while also having time on campus to soak up the vibes and interact with their peers.

Scoping out common areas on campus, or better yet a formal study group, for work/study time is another way to get more exposure to on-campus life.

Adjust your own expectations

While you likely enjoy having a little more time with them, this time between childhood and full adulthood can be tricky to navigate for both of you. Yes, your kid is in college, earning their own money and paving their own path. But when they’re still sleeping in the same childhood bedroom, it’s harder to see them as a young adult.

Setting expectations — for kids and parents —is a vital way to help you both find your way in this transitional period. Before school starts, have a clear conversation about what you expect from them in terms of chores, curfews, and financial contributions —and listen to what their expectations are of you. Sure, it’s your house and your rules, but their role and responsibilities are changing. Things you previously took for granted, for example, having a built-in babysitter for younger siblings, may also need to be revisited.

Most of all: enjoy this time! You may have mixed feelings about your semi-empty nest, but the years go by fast. Before you know it, your recent high school grad will be a college grad … and could be weighing job offers on the other side of the country.

Still looking for ways to make living on campus affordable? Check out our Nitro Scholarship to help bridge the gap.

About the Author
Carol Katarsky

Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky

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