When comparing colleges, many students focus on the cost of tuition and fees. But room and board can cost just as much — or more — than your actual education. The cost of room and board averages $10,800 a year at in-state public four-year colleges and $12,210 at four-year private nonprofit schools, according to College Board.
As a student, choosing a college in an area with a low cost of living can help you keep expenses low. Below, we highlight 20 U.S. cities that offer college students affordable prices on essential living expenses.
- The Midwest and South are the top regions for affordable living, especially for college students. Of the top 20 college cities, half are in the South and seven are in the Midwest.
- In cities with low costs of living, colleges usually charge less for room and board. Of the 50 colleges and universities in the top-20 list, 40 of the schools had annual room and board costs below the national average for in-state public four-year colleges of $10,800.
- Opting for a college in a low-cost city could save you $6,600 over four years. The average room and board prices of the colleges we surveyed was $9,150 per year. That’s $1,650 less a year than the $10,800 average, or $6,600 less over the four years needed to earn an undergraduate degree.
Top 20 cheapest cities for college students
In our study, we wanted to identify college towns where students benefit from low room and board costs both on and off campus.
We used cost-of-living data from Numbeo, an online pricing database, to find the 20 U.S. cities where college students will face some of the lowest living costs. We also highlighted the room and board costs at colleges in these cities to see how on-campus prices stack up against off-campus expenses.
Here’s our list of the cheapest cities for college students in the U.S., along with the annual room and board prices at local four-year colleges that grant bachelor’s degrees.
1. Springfield, Missouri
- Annual room and board at Drury University: $7,316
- Annual room and board at Baptist Bible College: $7,500
- Annual room and board at Evangel University: $8,522
- Annual room and board at Missouri State University: $8,755
A Midwest city home to several colleges, Springfield takes the No. 1 spot thanks to its low rent and housing costs. For example, the Council for Community and Economic Research (C2ER) estimated in its 2017 Cost of Living Index that the city’s housing costs were 28.6% lower than the national average.
This makes it easier for both on- and off-campus students to find affordable housing. Springfield’s colleges charge well below the national average for room and board. And a one-bedroom apartment in town costs just $556 a month, per Numbeo.
2. Mobile, Alabama
- Annual room and board at University of South Alabama: $7,490
- Annual room and board at University of Mobile: $9,100
- Annual room and board at Spring Hill College: $13,462
College students should still be able to find affordable lodging in this port city that sits on the Gulf of Mexico. Mobile’s housing prices were about 25% lower than the national average, according to C2ER.
Two of Mobile’s colleges offer room and board at below-average prices. A one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Mobile will be slightly pricier, at $802 a month.
3. Toledo, Ohio
- Annual room and board at University of Toledo: $11,434
Coming in at No. 3, Toledo is another city with low housing costs. A one-bedroom apartment in the center of this Ohio city costs just $661 per month, according to Numbeo.
The University of Toledo, however, charges room and board that’s slightly above average for colleges nationwide. Students might be able to cut costs by finding affordable off-campus housing in the city.
4. Tucson, Arizona
- Annual room and board at University of Arizona: $12,550
The University of Arizona is another school that charges above-average prices for room and board, though not by much. Incoming freshmen can expect to pay $12,550 for housing and a meal plan at the college.
But with local housing costs at 21.1% below the national average, per C2ER, Tucson is another city where students might save by living off campus. The average one-bedroom apartment in Tucson, for example, costs just $649 per month, or $5,841 for a nine-month school year.
5. Oklahoma City
- Annual room and board at Mid-America Christian University: $7,782
- Annual room and board at Oklahoma Christian University: $8,190
- Annual room and board at Oklahoma City University: $9,142
All three major colleges in Oklahoma City charge low prices for room and board, reflecting the city’s overall low cost of living. Off campus, housing costs 26.5% below the national average.
A one-bedroom apartment in the city’s center isn’t the cheapest on this list, however, at $812 a month. So college students in Oklahoma City should carefully compare on- and off-campus living to see which is a better fit for their budgets.
6. Lubbock, Texas
- Annual room and board at Lubbock Christian University: $6,500
- Annual room and board at Texas Tech University: $9,384
Home to both a public school and private religious university with low housing and meal costs, Lubbock is an affordable place for college students to live and study.
Living off campus costs an average of $713 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, per Numbeo, or $6,417 for a school year. This makes Lubbock a city in which on-campus living could be the cheaper choice for many students.
7. Huntsville, Alabama
- Annual room and board at Alabama A&M University: $7,302
- Annual room and board at Oakwood University: $9,374
- Annual room and board at University of Alabama in Huntsville: $9,748
Huntsville residents benefit from housing costs that are 26.6% cheaper than the national average.
This Alabama city’s universities charge room and board costs well below the national average of $10,800 for public colleges. This could make on-campus living a financially smart choice in Huntsville, considering that a one-bedroom apartment averages $833 a month, or around $7,500 for a school year.
8. Little Rock, Arkansas
- Annual room and board at Arkansas Baptist College: $8,190
- Annual room and board at Philander Smith College: $8,250
- Annual room and board at University of Arkansas at Little Rock: $9,000
Next up is Little Rock, which is home to three colleges that all provide affordable housing and meal plans. The city itself boasts a 10% savings on housing costs compared to the national average, according to C2ER. But even off-campus students won’t face astronomical costs, with one-bedroom rents averaging $738 per month, or just over $6,600 for a school year.
9. Fort Wayne, Indiana
- Annual room and board at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne: $6,982
- Annual room and board at University of Saint Francis: $9,840
- Annual room and board at Indiana Tech: $10,020
College students in Fort Wayne can keep living costs relatively low, thanks to housing costs that are 27.7% lower than the national average.
In real dollars, this means average rent expenses of just $600 per month, per Numbeo, or $5,400 for a school year. On-campus students will also face below-average costs for room and board, thanks to affordable pricing from Fort Wayne’s universities.
10. Redding, California
- Annual room and board at Simpson University: $8,724
This city offers surprisingly affordable housing, considering California is one of the most expensive spots in the country. Numbeo reports average rents of $745 per month for single-bedroom apartments.
Simpson University students also pay significantly less for room and board than students at other private colleges. The college’s costs beat the $12,210 annual average for private colleges by about $3,500.
11. Dayton, Ohio
- Annual room and board at Wright State University: $9,292
- Annual room and board at University of Dayton: $13,180
Another Midwest city, Dayton might offer some of the lowest housing costs on this list. Numbeo puts the average rent for one-bedroom apartments at $696 per month. Plus, Dayton residents paid 31.5% less than the average American for housing in 2017, reported C2ER.
College students attending one of Dayton’s universities might find off-campus living more financially feasible, thanks to these low housing prices. This is especially true at the University of Dayton, which charges above-average prices for room and board.
12. Louisville, Kentucky
- Annual room and board at Simmons College of Kentucky: $6,328
- Annual room and board at Spalding University: $7,400
- Annual room and board at University of Louisville: $8,130
- Annual room and board at Bellarmine University: $12,030
Home to several four-year colleges and universities, Louisville provides plenty of opportunities to earn a bachelor’s degree at a bargain. But some of its schools offer much cheaper on-campus room and board than others, with a $5,700 difference between the lowest and highest pricing.
Still, finding affordable housing shouldn’t be too difficult, thanks to costs that are 21.8% lower than the national average. Students should expect to pay around $823 a month for an average one-bedroom apartment in downtown Louisville.
13. Lexington, Kentucky
- Annual room and board at University of Kentucky: $10,450
- Annual room and board at Transylvania University: $10,820
Overall, Lexington’s costs of living are on the higher end for cities on this list. College students in this city will want to consider if on-campus living might be the better deal, considering both Lexington schools have competitive pricing on room and board.
The area still offers relatively affordable housing at $840 a month, or $7,560 for a school year, for a one-bedroom, off-campus apartment.
14. Wichita, Kansas
- Annual room and board at Friends University: $7,740
- Annual room and board at Newman University: $8,022
- Annual room and board at Wichita State University: $8,740
One-bedroom apartments in Wichita are affordable at $795 a month, or nearly $7,200 for a school year.
But college students will be hard-pressed to find off-campus prices that beat what they’d pay for room and board at Wichita universities. These local schools each offer savings of $2,000 or more compared to the $10,800 national average for public four-year colleges.
15. Boise, Idaho
- Annual room and board at Boise Bible College: $6,200
- Annual room and board at Boise State University: $11,539
These two colleges have a wide gap in pricing, with Boise State charging $5,300 more per year than Boise Bible College.
Even so, on-campus living might be the better choice for students in this city, despite housing costs that are 13.2% below the national average. A one-bedroom apartment would cost just under $900 a month, or $8,100 for a school year, which is one of the higher averages of any city on this list.
16. Knoxville, Tennessee
- Annual room and board at Johnson University: $6,350
- Annual room and board at University of Tennessee, Knoxville: $10,130
Up next is Knoxville, which beats out Boise to charge the highest rent prices of any city on this list. A one-bedroom place in the heart of the city costs $913 a month, or $8,217 for a school year.
To pay less, college students in Knoxville might consider living on campus — especially if they’re paying the lower costs of Johnson University. Another option could be living further out, as apartments outside of the city’s center are just $631 per month, according to Numbeo.
17. Sioux Falls, South Dakota
- Annual room and board at University of Sioux Falls: $7,350
- Annual room and board at Augustana University: $7,706
Sioux Falls’ universities offer a great deal for college students, both charging less than $8,000 a school year for room and board. Meanwhile, off-campus housing averages $813 a month for a one-bedroom apartment, or more than $7,300 for a school year.
When food costs are figured in, on-campus housing and meal plans are a clear winner for college students in this low-cost city.
18. Winston-Salem, North Carolina
- Annual room and board at University of North Carolina School of the Arts: $8,977
- Annual room and board at Winston-Salem State University: $10,029
- Annual room and board at Salem College: $11,850
- Annual room and board at Wake Forest University: $14,394
This North Carolina city has housing and rent costs that are a third less than the national average, according to the C2ER Cost of Living Index.
Yet this isn’t necessarily reflected in the local colleges’ room and board pricing. Salem College and Wake Forest University students might pay less by living off campus, with one-bedroom rents at $821 per month, according to Numbeo.
19. Lincoln, Nebraska
- Annual room and board at Union College: $7,070
- Annual room and board at Nebraska Wesleyan University: $9,252
- Annual room and board at University of Nebraska-Lincoln: $9,380
Home to three colleges that all have below-average room and board prices, Lincoln students can save whether they live on or off campus. Local housing costs are 18.7% less than the national average. For one-bedroom apartments, this means average rents around $750 a month, or $6,750 for a school year.
20. Tulsa, Oklahoma
- Annual room and board at Oral Roberts University: $9,450
- Annual room and board at The University of Tulsa: $11,116
Rounding out the list is Tulsa, which touts housing costs that are 35.2% less than the national average. Local colleges also have affordable room and board costs, but you could find lower costs off campus where the average price for a one-bedroom place is $787 a month.
Consider room and board when comparing college costs
Overall, this ranking shows that the local living costs where a college is located can have a huge impact on student budgets. Low off-campus costs often result in lower on-campus living costs. And if it doesn’t, students will have a better chance at paying less if the area offers affordable prices on housing, groceries, and other key expenses.
Students searching for a college can take these steps to limit their costs from room and board:
- Compare more than just tuition and fees at each college. Research and compare housing and meal plans, too.
- Research local costs of living for each college you’re considering. You’ll have more options and a better ability to keep living costs low if both on- and off-campus expenses are affordable.
- Choose low-cost options when possible. For example, you might choose a college close enough to home that you can live with parents or another relative rent-free. Splitting rent with a roommate will also cut costs whether you live on or off campus.
- Compare prices of on-campus room and board against off-campus living. Many colleges’ on-campus prices are far above what a student would pay to live off campus with roommates. Or, you might pay less by doing your own grocery shopping and meal prep than paying for a full on-campus meal plan.
The lower your costs, the less you’ll need to rely on federal or private student loans. Every dollar you save now will help you maintain financial freedom once you graduate.
With some research and careful consideration, you can choose a college with living costs that match your budget — the top 20 cities on this list are a great place to start.
Methodology: To generate these rankings, Student Loan Hero surveyed cost of living in 135 U.S. cities using rankings from Numbeo, sourced on April 2, 2018. It cross-referenced cities with the lowest combined living and housing costs against a list of colleges from Peterson’s to find the cheapest cities that were hosts to one or more four-year colleges or universities.
Student Loan Hero also surveyed three additional figures, which did not affect rankings but were included to inform results: (1) rent figures from Numbeo, (2) cost-of-living figures for cities from C2ER, and (3) annual room and board costs as reported on the websites of colleges in these cities. Colleges were not included in these rankings or article if room and board pricing were not listed on their sites.
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