Figuring out how to pay for college? Don’t forget to account for room and board. It’s often more costly than tuition.
In fact, the average full-time student attending an in-state public college or university paid $9,970 in tuition and fees in 2017, according to the College Board. They spent another $10,800 on room and board.
To avoid the high cost of living on campus, here’s why you should consider off-campus housing options.
How to pay for college housing: On campus or off?
Before you worry about how to find affordable off-campus housing, make sure your school’s on-campus options aren’t cheaper.
For example, it’s 53% cheaper to rent a dorm room from Columbia University than it is to rent a room in New York City, according to a 2017 StreetEasy study. So, living off campus isn’t a money-saving option for Columbia University students.
Talk to your school’s housing office about its rates and options. Then, draw comparisons with shared and private apartments nearby.
When you do the math, don’t forget to account for extras. For instance, your school’s dorms likely subsidize your electric, internet, and other monthly bills. And most college dorms come with furniture. You (and your roommates) would be responsible for these costs if you lived off campus.
You’ll also have to consider transportation expenses. Living on campus could leave you a short walk from your first morning class. Living off campus might mean you’ll need to buy a bus pass or worry about parking your car.
5 strategies you can use to find cheaper off-campus housing
Creating a budget will help you figure out how to pay for college housing. Use a budgeting app, such as Mint, to enter your income and cash — whether it comes from a job, your financial aid package, or your parents — and tally up your recurring expenses.
See how much room you have in your budget for rent and other monthly bills. Then, you’ll have a better idea of which of these five strategies will be most helpful to you.
1. Consider staying at home
If you’re attending a local school, living at home could erase the cost of a room. And you could skip the school’s meal plan.
Sleeping and eating under the same roof as your parents might not seem like the so-called college experience. But if doing so allows you to worry less about money and focus more on classes, it’s worth considering.
Transportation to and from campus could cut into your savings, so make sure you live close enough to make it work. If you find yourself paying for student car insurance, big gas bills, and on-campus parking, you might reconsider this strategy.
2. Tap into your school’s resources
Four-year schools typically help students find off-campus housing. Search your school’s website for its related department or office and get in touch. In addition to pointing you in the direction of potential living situations, it could offer helpful tips, including how to build a resume for potential landlords.
You’d also be wise to touch base with your school’s financial aid office to discuss how living off campus could affect your aid package. On the typical college award letter, your school estimates the cost of living (COL) as part of its overall cost of attendance.
Unfortunately, those estimates could be incorrect. In fact, more than 40% of colleges report a COL that’s at least 20% above or below their counties’ estimates, according to a 2016 report by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, via The Chronicle of Higher Education. You can look up the accuracy of your school’s projections using The Chronicle of Higher Education’s interactive tool.
Let’s say your school projects you’ll need $5,000 for living expenses but you actually need $6,000. That presents a problem because you could become ineligible for another $1,000 in financial aid if you’ve already met the school’s cost of attendance.
If you find the estimates to be off — or if you’ve experienced an economic hardship — you might be able to negotiate a better aid package. Talk to your school’s financial aid office about your options for appealing. Be prepared to present documentation backing up your economic hardship claim, particularly if you or your parent has experienced a job loss or another loss of income.
3. Look out for student co-ops serving low-income students
If your school’s financial aid office can’t give you a leg up on how to pay for college housing, it could at least point you in the direction of affordable off-campus options. It might have a physical or digital bulletin board of listings, for example.
Better yet, your school might be located near a student housing co-op. These are community-oriented, member-managed properties. The North American Students of Cooperation website hosts a map of properties spanning the U.S.
The savings could be significant. Room and board through the Berkeley Student Cooperative, for example, would set you back about $7,000 for two semesters. The cost of room and board for a University of California, Berkeley residence hall, however, was about $16,000 for freshmen in 2017.
4. Use online resources to find roommates for off-campus housing
No matter where you live, you can lower your housing costs by sharing them with a roommate. The savings will stretch beyond monthly rent to recurring bills for water, heat, electric, and internet.
Find someone who’s compatible and looking to find cheaper off-campus housing. Ideally, they’ll have a good credit score. Either way, you might need to find a guarantor if you and your roommate don’t have the credit history or income to appease landlords.
If you don’t yet have a friend or potential roommate on campus, you can use a free roommate-finding website, such as Uloop, to search for one.
5. Scan apartment listings specifically for college students
Renting an off-campus apartment that isn’t directly affiliated with your school is often the priciest strategy, but it doesn’t have to be. Many schools, including the University of Arizona and the University of Oregon, team with Off Campus Partners to provide lower-priced listings.
If your school doesn’t have an Off Campus Partners website, ask if it offers an alternative. Places4Students.com, for example, works with 49 schools in the U.S.
Property managers who post listings on these sites are open to student applicants. That’s a plus because other landlords might be hesitant to rent to college students.
There’s no shortage of non-school-specific websites, such as Apartment Finder. Be sure to compare rent quotes before scheduling visits to rooms and apartments that fit your budget.
Keep in mind that an apartment’s lease might span a longer period than a college dorm’s. Don’t sign on for a 12-month lease if you plan to return home for the summer. You’ll also likely be on the hook for a security deposit equal to a month’s rent.
Learn how to pay for college by trimming housing costs
Knowing how to pay for college is partly about saving where you can — and room and board represents a big opportunity to trim. It was responsible for about 43% of the cost of attending an in-state public college or university in 2017, according to the College Board.
You might think sharing an expensive dorm room is part of the true college experience. But some of the best strategies for finding cheaper off-campus housing include living with other students too.
Regardless of whether you want a roommate, talk to your school about your situation. Search high and low for lower-cost housing options. The less you spend on room and board, the more you can focus on maximizing your tuition dollars.
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