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The choice to live on or off campus can significantly impact the overall cost of your college education. Room and board in an on-campus dorm can be convenient, but students off campus may be able to find cheaper options. However, you should also consider ancillary expenses like parking permits and utilities — and the overall experience you want out of your college years.
Snapshot: Living on campus vs. off campus
|Annual on-campus cost (public four-year)||Annual off-campus cost, not living with family|
|Books and supplies||$1,230||$1,230|
|Other (transportation, entertainment, laundry, etc.)||$3,543||$4,451|
Sources: National Center for Education Statistics (on-campus housing and dining; books, supplies and other), Redfin (off-campus housing), Move.org (off-campus dining), Parks Associates (off-campus internet). Off-campus averages assume a seven-month enrollment period per year.
The cost of living on campus
When you live on campus, many of your expenses will be managed by your university. Your total cost of attendance depends on your school — for instance, public institutions generally have lower costs than private institutions, and out-of-state students will pay more than in-state students. However, there are several standard costs you can expect if you choose to live on campus in the dorms.
Room costs vary based on the type of college you attend and the type of dorm you select. Dorm rooms typically include basic furnishings, like a bed, basic storage, a desk, a chair and a closet. The total room and board cost will also include utility costs like heating, cooling, water and internet.
Other furnishings like microwaves, fridges, sheet sets and pillows are not included, adding to the total cost of living on campus. However, some colleges do offer the option to rent certain items, like vacuum cleaners, fridges and microwaves, so check in with your housing and residence department before making those purchases.
The cost of room and board varies by school, with private schools often charging more than public schools. For example, the private school Davidson College charges $15,750 for room and board for 2022-23, while the public school North Carolina State University estimates $12,748. Freshmen may be required to live on campus for the first year if not commuting.
If living on campus is nonnegotiable for you but the costs are too high, consider becoming a resident advisor (RA). While being an RA is a large responsibility and time commitment, the job generally covers the cost of room and board and may also include a monthly stipend or meal plan discounts.
On-campus dining can be expensive. Some schools may let you choose your meal plan — meaning how many meals you have access to in the dining halls or which dining options are open to you. However, at smaller universities with one cafeteria, it’s common for students to be given a flat-rate meal plan option for the academic year.
Students may also be offered an option to have a monetary balance loaded onto their student account as a part of a meal plan. Students can use these balances at approved restaurants or convenience stores on campus.
Freshmen are often required to sign up for a meal plan. If you need dining accommodations, contact student services for optional meal plans.
The cost of living off campus
Living off campus has its pros and cons. While you’ll have more control over your budget — not being limited to the university’s housing and meal plans — you’ll also have to factor in additional transportation costs and utility bills.
As inflation hits record-breaking levels, off-campus students also have to consider how a higher cost of living will impact their wallets. Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that the gasoline index rose 11.2 percent in June 2022, and the food index increased by 10.4 percent between June 2021 and June 2022.
The cost of housing off campus depends on where you live and what type of housing you’re considering. Inflation has hit housing and rent costs in America significantly; according to Redfin’s rental market tracker, the median monthly cost of rent surpassed $2,000 for the first time in May of this year.
While rent prices have increased across the country, living with roommates while in school can help cut back your overall housing costs.
Food budgets are where many off-campus students are able to save money. Move.org estimates that groceries and dining out cost Americans an average of $183 to $557 per month, depending on location. Compare that to North Carolina State University’s meal plan, which costs $5,316 per academic year or roughly $760 per month over a seven-month enrollment period.
College students looking to save even more on their grocery bill can meal prep and avoid dining out regularly. Grocery stores in college towns may also offer student discounts or rewards cards.
Transportation and other expenses
Students who need to commute to campus will need to consider rising gas prices and the additional costs of maintaining a vehicle. According to AAA, the national average gas price as of July 25, 2022, is $4.355 for regular grade fuel. Students may also have to pay for an on-campus parking pass, which can easily run hundreds of dollars per academic year. Those who don’t have a car should budget for a public transit pass.
Other expenses unique to off-campus students include laundry and furnishings, both of which are often provided within on-campus dorms. These may not add much to a budget, but they’re easy to overlook.
Pros and cons of living on campus
Living on campus is often required for students’ freshman year, but many students choose to live on campus even beyond that first year. There are benefits and drawbacks to this approach.
- Everything is in within walking distance.
- On-campus resources and activities are easily accessible.
- There’s no need to find parking on campus.
- Students do not need to cook or do grocery shopping.
- University charges can be high.
- Roommates are often randomly assigned.
- Dining halls may not provide adequate options.
- Accommodations can be cramped.
Pros and cons of living off campus
Students who live on campus may experience more freedom but, in some cases, less convenience. Here are the pros and cons.
- Food and grocery budgets are easier to control.
- Living spaces may be nicer.
- Students can choose their own roommates.
- Students may experience more freedom and privacy.
- Campus parking may be hard to navigate.
- Students may feel disconnected from campus life and activities.
- Gas costs and parking permits may add up.
- Rent prices are high.
Ultimately, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to living on versus off campus. It’s important to be safe and comfortable during your collegiate career, and the choice you make depends on your situation, lifestyle and budget.