How to Pay for Housing in College: Off-Campus Options

 March 18, 2020
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If you are planning how to pay for college, don’t overlook the potentially high cost of your room and board.

The cost of housing in college may be a real concern when you consider your dorm room and meal plan might be more expensive than your tuition at an in-state public college or university.

For example, in-state tuition and fees for an incoming freshman at the University at Buffalo in 2019 was $10,524, but the room and board runs $14,134, according to data from the College Board.

To avoid the high price of living on campus — and to avoid taking out extra student loans to pay for it — here’s why you should consider off-campus housing options.

What’s cheaper, on-campus or off-campus housing?

When you are trying to decide if you should live in a dorm or on your own, make sure your school’s on-campus options don’t cost less than renting your own place.

For example, in cities known for high rents, like New York, it may be cheaper to pay for a dorm room than a studio or a shared apartment, but in cities and towns with cheaper housing, it could be worth it to pay for off-campus housing. Looking for the most affordable cities for college students? Check out schools in Louisville, Ky., and Tulsa, Okla., among others.

Talk to your school’s housing office about its rates and options. Then, draw comparisons with shared and private apartments nearby.

Additional living costs

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 for finding affordable off-campus housing

Creating a budget may help you figure out how to pay for college housing. Use a budgeting app 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. This should give you a better idea about which of these five strategies will be most helpful to you.

1. Consider staying at home
2. Tap into your school’s resources
3. Look out for student co-ops serving low-income students
4. Use online resources to find roommates for off-campus housing
5. Scan apartment listings specifically for college students

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. However, 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. In 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, as of three years ago, more than 40% of colleges report a COL that’s at least 20% above or below their counties’ estimates, according to a report by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

And the situation may not be improving. A 2019 report from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education showed that the net price calculators provided online by many colleges and universities often contain out-of-date data instead of information from the current year.

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.

Don’t forget to check out housing grants, designed specifically to help students cover the cost of room and board. There are a variety of grants and scholarships out there for students who are concerned about covering their housing and meal costs.

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 hosts a map of properties spanning the United States.

The savings with a student housing co-op could be significant. For example, room and board in a studio apartment through the Berkeley Student Cooperative costs $6,864 for the school year versus room and board in a University of California, Berkeley residence hall, which costs $17,952 in 2020-2021.

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, electricity 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., for example, works with 59 schools in the U.S.

Property managers who post listings on these sites are open to student applicants. That’s a plus because some 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 dorm room for an academic year. 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. You might think sharing a 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 college’s financial aid office about your situation. And search high and low for lower-cost housing options, if your school’s room and board is too high.

The less you spend on room and board, the more you can focus on maximizing your tuition dollars.

Maya Dollarhide contributed to this report.

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