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Buy or share cars on campus?

By Claes Bell ·
Wednesday, February 16, 2011
Posted: 11 am ET

Sending a kid off to college in the fall? If you're thinking about buying him or her a car or helping out with costs, enrolling your child in car sharing might make more sense.

Car-sharing provider Zipcar has been particularly aggressive about enrolling colleges in partnerships to provide car sharing on their campuses. The company just announced it completed rollouts of its car sharing services on eight more college campuses across the country: University of Texas at Austin, Michigan State University, North Carolina State University, University of Richmond, Christopher Newport University, Hampshire College, Meredith College and Seton Hall University.

Zipcar is pushing on to more college campuses, providing students the opportunity to forgo car ownership and still make occasional car trips

Zipcar is pushing on to more college campuses, providing students the opportunity to forgo car ownership and still make regular car trips.

These additions bring Zipcar's college roster a total of 225 campuses populated by 1.7 million students, faculty and staff, according to a company press release.

I think car sharing could be a fine alternative to dropping thousands of dollars on a car for your college-bound kid, especially if you're already having to drop a bunch of money contributing to their tuition, room and board. It lets kids make those necessary trips to the grocery store and Walmart without chaining them to a car they have to maintain, fill up with gas and park, and has the potential to save money, too.

Parking in particular can be murder on a college campus. My first semester in college I once got my car towed three times in two weeks, thanks to a combination of carelessness, a hidden "no parking" sign and a freshman parking lot transforming into alumni parking overnight because of a football game. It cost me $80 a pop to get it out all three times, and I remember wondering why the hell I'd brought a car to college to begin with.

And it's not just parking costs and missteps that are prohibitively expensive; depreciation happens so fast on a college campus it will make your head spin. When I was in college, I saw no shortage of parent-provided cars fall apart before my eyes as their owners beat them to a pulp, failed to perform needed maintenance and left them in college parking lots full of inexperienced drivers who invariably added their own scrapes, dents and cracks. I'd wager the majority of parent-provided cars don't make it much past graduation, if they make it that far.

Zipcar estimates opting for car sharing rather than buying a new or late model used car with an auto loan will save about $500 a month per vehicle, even if your student is a heavy Zipcar user (10 two-hour, two three-hour, and two 24-hour reservations). Even if the savings end up being half that, $250 a month is a lot of scratch, especially for parents being squeezed for sky-high tuition and fees already.

What do you think? Is car sharing a smart option for college students? I'd especially like to hear from college students on this one.

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Claes Bell
February 18, 2011 at 11:25 am

Thanks for the perspective, CareyAnn. I think you're right that if you already have the ideal college car -- modestly sized, good fuel economy, low-maintenance -- it probably makes sense to just go ahead and bring it with you to college, especially if you live within easy driving distance to home and you're lucky enough to have an inexpensive insurance option.

February 18, 2011 at 11:24 am

I just graduated from college less than a year ago. I think that it is a great idea environmentally and I am all for it (Students would only use cars when they absolutely needed to). It especially makes sense for students who go to college long distances away from their homes and have to fly home for the holidays and vacations. This would keep them from having to drive a car across the country, and they would still have access to a car when they needed it.

If you live in a college town, you can typically walk or bike to your destination. If you live in a big city, there is typically a good public transportation center.

For me, this scenario would not have been cost efficient. My car was paid for by the time I went to college. I drove a modest, but nice car, which I received when I was 16. I did not have a car payment and my insurance is relatively cheap, so renting would have been more expensive considering I drove home (which was an hour away at least once a month). But I can definitely see where this could work for some.