At many American colleges, living on campus in a school-provided dorm or an apartment is completely optional. For those institutions that do mandate on-site living — usually private universities — the requirement is typically for first- or second-year students or those who haven’t reached legal age.
With so many options for college kids these days, it isn’t always obvious if dorm living is the best choice, even though it's presented as the default option in many colleges' marketing materials. So is living on campus worth it or not?
The honest answer should be based on several factors. Some questions you’ll want to ask to help you decide include:
- Is there adequate housing in the city where my college is located? If so, will age or income requirements make it difficult for me to get approved for off-site living arrangements?
- Can I afford to live alone? If not, is there a safe and easy way to find a roommate? Can I handle the consequences of a roommate moving out?
- Will a demanding class schedule or extracurricular requirements make it easier to live on campus? For example, are long hours in a lab or twice daily sports practices easier to manage when living nearby?
- Will I be attending a private school or a public institution? Can I use scholarships or university-sponsored grants to fund the cost of room and board?
You must weigh the answers to all of these questions to determine whether on-campus living is a good choice.
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Factoring in Meal Plans
There’s one significant additional cost consideration that students must make before deciding on living arrangements: food. Since most schools require those living in dorms to purchase a college meal plan — which is often as expensive as the dorm — there is the potential of almost doubling the cost of living on campus.
However, picking the right meal plan can turn this pricey requirement into a benefit.
Having access to all-you-can-eat options can actually be a money saver.
For example, it’s cheaper than eating out or allowing groceries to go to waste in your apartment. But food choice varies by person, and if you won’t make the most of a college meal plan, preferring to cook your own budget meals instead, any savings from living in a dorm will most likely be unrealized.
Consider these two very different situations for a private school in the Midwest, and compare how each could affect a young person’s already stretched budget.
Student A received a full-ride scholarship that covers only tuition. College dorm costs are extra, but can be paid in monthly installments to the school with no additional fees.
The cost for living on campus is $3,450 per year for a basic dorm room, shared with one person, and includes electricity, heating and cooling, trash, water, parking, Wi-Fi, cable television, and printer fees. Plus, the mandatory meal plan is an additional $3,800.
The student plans to live at home with her parents on breaks and over the summer.
Total cost: $805 per month for the months enrolled in school
Student B received a full-ride scholarship that only covers tuition. Apartment costs average $1,050 per month, but they can be split with a roommate or two. Heat, trash, parking, and water are included in the monthly cost. Electricity, cable television, and internet amount to an additional $275 a month. Groceries average from $230 to $350 a month. The lease is for a year, and first and last month’s rent — along with a deposit — are due at signing.
Total cost: $716 to $937 per month, plus deposit
5 Cities, Compared
Given that meal plans should be included in the cost of a dorm, we looked at what it would cost to live in five cities nationwide, comparing local college dormitory prices with the average price for a two-bedroom apartment (split in half). Off-campus costs came from things like parking, transportation, utilities, application fees, deposits, and insurance.
The results were all over the place, showing that there is no perfect rationale for choosing to live on campus over living off campus.
The average cost for half of a two-bedroom apartment is $630 a month.
Loyola University (private, nonprofit)
- On campus: $13,770 ($1,530 per month), with $5,180 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $11,500 ($1,277 per month)
University of Illinois at Chicago (public)
- On campus: $11,342 ($1,260 per month), with $3,332 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $10,882 ($1,209 per month)
Chicago State University (public)
- On campus: $8,724 ($969 per month), meals plans not billed separately
- Off campus: $8,724 ($969 per month)
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The average cost for half of a two-bedroom apartment is $400 a month.
Cleveland State University (public):
- On campus: $12,000 ($1,333 per month), with $3,400 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $12,000 ($1,333 per month)
Cleveland Institute of Art (private, nonprofit):
- On campus: $11,854 ($1,317 per month), with $6,380 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $8,700 ($944 per month)
3. Colorado Springs
The average cost for half of a two-bedroom apartment is $630 a month.
University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (public)
- On campus: $9,900 ($1,100 per month), meals plans not billed separately
- Off campus: $10,400 ($1,155 per month)
The average cost for half of a two-bedroom apartment is $550 a month.
University of Dallas (private, nonprofit):
- On campus: $11,596 ($1,288 per month), with $5,146 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $8,500 ($944 per month)
University of Texas at Dallas (public):
- On campus: $10,668 ($1,185 per month), with $3,746 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $10,190 ($1,132 per month)
Dallas Baptist University (private, nonprofit):
- On campus: $7,533 ($837 per month), with $3,848 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $10,692 ($1,188 per month)
5. San Diego
The average cost for half of a two-bedroom apartment is $1,005 a month.
San Diego State University (public)
- On campus: $14,812 ($1,645 per month), with $5,312 going to meal plans
- Off campus: $12,050 ($1,338 per month)
University of California San Diego (public)
- On campus: $12,545 ($1,393 per month), meals plans not billed separately
- Off campus: $10,131 ($1,125 per month)
University of San Diego (private, nonprofit)
- On campus: $12,302 ($1,366 per month), meal plans not billed separately
- Off campus: $12,492 ($1,388 per month)
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Final Thoughts: Is Living on Campus Worth It?
For many students, money will be just one critical factor in choosing between on-campus and off-campus living. The freedom that comes with having your own place is far more valuable to some than any small savings benefit they might receive from even the thriftiest on-campus accommodations.
While younger students can find on-campus living to be a great way to meet people and transition into college life, they might need that less as they get older. Splitting apartment costs with a few college friends in your junior and senior years can be the happy medium when it comes to independence, cost-effectiveness, and a social life.
My college-aged daughter went with a private school in a South Dakota community that has a low cost of living. Dorm costs and meal plans were among the cheapest in the nation. In fact, even if she had the chance to live off campus her first year, we found the cost savings of staying on campus to be substantial.
However, our research uncovered that there aren’t any rules for which type of schools are cheapest. Private, nonprofit, and for-profit schools all had some outliers that were budget busters. Meal plans had the potential to take reasonable dorm fees and make them unaffordable to most anyone. For example, some plans would require a student to buy more than $600 in groceries a month to make the meal plans more affordable than shopping on one's own.
Perhaps the best way to find out what’s realistic — and affordable — is to ask. Many college students will be very up front about what they've found to be the most expensive part of living on or off campus. Inquire about things that the college tour guides don’t cover, such as transportation, food quality, and even whether you’ll need a car to get around.
Never rely solely on the cost calculators offered on school websites to give you all your answers. The honesty of students is worth more than any college brochure and can save you from a very expensive four-year mistake.