Off-Campus vs. On-Campus Housing: Best Investment

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 9/08/20

If you are heading to college or are already there, you might wonder which is the better investment: on-campus housing or off-campus housing. After all, you have to live somewhere while attending school. 

To decide, it’s important to consider many factors, including the relative cost, other associated expenses, whether financial aid might help pay for one type of housing, and what the social and emotional considerations are for each living situation.

In this article, we take a close look at both the finances involved as well as a multitude of pros and cons for on-campus, off-campus, and at-home living while in college.

Cost of On-Campus Living

According to research conducted by the College Board, the cost of room and board at public four-year schools averaged $11,510 during the 2019-2020 school year. For private, nonprofit institutions, it was slightly higher at $12,990.

These sticker prices cover one academic year of on-campus living, which is typically nine months. All utilities and food are included, so this is genuinely the total price. When you live on campus, you are also supplied with a basic set of furniture.

These prices do vary by school, but you can usually find the published room and board cost on any particular college’s website for comparison. 

Cost of Off-Campus Living

The cost of living off campus can vary widely, depending on the type of place you rent and whether you share expenses with roommates. The national median rental price of a one-bedroom apartment is $962 a month. Depending on where you live, the actual cost could even be half or double this number. 

But using the median price and multiplying by the nine months in a school year gives $8,658. Keep in mind that all expenses are not included in this number. Additional expenses to consider include:

  • Utilities
  • Food
  • Furniture
  • Deposit
  • Commuting (by car or bus to campus)

When all of that is factored in, the total very likely becomes larger than the cost of living on campus, but again, this can vary widely, depending on where you are. 

Also, if you rent a two-bedroom apartment and split rent with a roommate, your nine-month rent total is likely closer to $5,373, and it may very well be possible to get by with paying less than you would if living on campus.

Check rental prices in the area where you plan on attending school to get a more accurate picture. Also, consider whether you will use public transportation or your own vehicle to travel to and from campus.

Cost of Living at Home

One of the least expensive options, provided that your family lives close enough to campus, is to remain at home while attending school. Assuming your parents or guardians are generous, you can live rent-free or at least for low rent. Your food budget may also be covered.

You will, however, need a way of getting to and from campus. Public transportation often costs very little per month, while owning your own vehicle is considerably more, with the average car payment for a used vehicle at $391 per month, in addition to paying for insurance, maintenance, a parking permit, and gas. 

Pros and Cons of Living on Campus

In addition to price, there are other factors to consider when deciding whether to live on or off campus. Consider the following potential benefits of on-campus living:

  • Immersion in campus culture
  • No need for transportation
  • Scholarships, grants, and student loans usually cover on-campus housing
  • 529 savings plan funds can be used to pay for on-campus housing
  • No need to worry about utilities or other similar monthly bills
  • You won’t need to pay a security deposit
  • More independence than living at home

Some cons to on-campus living include:

  • Dorm rooms are often small, and you may have to share space with a roommate
  • Dorm or dining hall food may not be the greatest
  • You will have to adhere to dormitory rules, which may include limiting guests, quiet hours, or moratoriums on overnight visitors
  • You will have less independence than if you had your own place
  • You have to move out during the summer, or pay extra to stay

Certainly, if you have been awarded grants or scholarships that cover dorm living but will not cover off-campus housing, this can be the financial decision-maker. After all, scholarships and grants are essentially free money. 

Pros and Cons of Living Off Campus

As we’ve seen, living off campus can be potentially cheaper in some situations while more expensive in others. The benefits of living off campus include:

  • Greater independence
  • No need to adhere to dorm rules
  • You don’t need to share your personal living space or bathrooms
  • It’s easier to become more immersed in the surrounding community as opposed to staying isolated to the campus community
  • No need to move at the end of the school year

Some drawbacks include:

  • Scholarships, grants, or loans may not cover off-campus housing
  • 529 savings plans may or may not be able to be used to help pay for off-campus housing
  • You have to take care off all of your utilities and other expenses
  • You will need transportation to get to campus
  • May miss out on campus culture

Pros and Cons of Living at Home

There are also pros and cons to living at home. Some benefits include:

  • No need to move or pack
  • You already know what to expect of your living situation
  • All expenses might be included, depending on parental generosity

Some drawbacks include:

  • Less independence
  • May need to adhere to your parents’ rules
  • May have to contend with family members you dislike
  • Will need transportation to get to campus
  • May miss out on campus culture

How to Decide

In addition to considering cost, you want to consider your social life, personal preferences, the complexity of your living situation, and other factors. Deciding what is right for you may not be easy, so consider making your own list of pros and cons and compare exact dollar amounts.

Even if on-campus housing ends up being more expensive, it may prove a better investment in the long run in terms of relationships that are built. Those who live on campus are around other students all the time. So, while the dorm food may not be the best, and someone’s hair is always clogging the shower drain, if you make life-long friendships, these can be doorways to future jobs and opportunities.

If you are someone who greatly values their personal space and like the idea of being able to leave campus and have greater independence, then off-campus housing may be the very thing that keeps you sane and allows you to get through college. 

In fact, in certain college towns, it might be possible to find an apartment right next to campus, which means you can still keep a foot in the door of the campus community while maintaining your independence. 

It’s worth mentioning that some colleges, in particular private ones, may require that freshmen live on campus. If so, you might not have much choice but will likely have the option to move off campus if you want during your later years. 

College and Finances

At we recognize that a lot of the planning and decision-making that goes into preparing for college is financial. After all, college can be very expensive these days, and you want to make sure you take advantage of every break you can get. 

Comparing the costs of living situations is just one piece of the puzzle. The biggest piece is usually tuition, so we have the resources to help you find scholarships, choose the best loans, and prepare yourself for repayment. Consider signing up for our newsletter to get updates in your inbox.