Is It Cheaper to Live On or Off Campus?

Room and board makes up a large part of many college students' budgets. What options save you money? Our guide helps you decide where to live during college.
4 min read

Share this Article

  • On-campus housing often costs more than $10,000 per academic year.
  • The costs of living off campus can add up quickly, especially if you need transportation.
  • A few simple tips can help students cut living expenses during college.
  • The cheapest housing option depends on your circumstances.

Is it cheaper to live on or off campus? And is it financially smart to live in dorms? The answer depends on your school, location, and lifestyle. In New York City, undergrads can save money by living in the dorms, while off-campus housing might cost less in more rural college towns.

Housing typically makes up a large part of a college student's budget. And budgeting in college is a challenge for many undergrads. Here are some factors to consider when debating living off campus vs. on campus.

How Much Does Living On Campus Cost?

Living on campus can run up a high bill. According to the College Board, students spent an average of $9,330-$13,620 on room and board for the 2021-22 academic year, depending on their institution type. Here's how on-campus costs add up.

Dorm Costs

Living in on-campus housing usually means staying in a dorm room. And the cost of a dorm room varies depending on the school. Typically, dorm costs represent most of the room and board fees students pay. Students may have limited options to cut costs on their dorm room, with many colleges charging a flat rate for staying in the dorms.

Meal Plan Costs

A campus meal plan comprises another large part of room and board costs. According to data shared by The Hechinger Report, the average price for a meal plan in 2016 was almost $19 a day. In comparison, in May 2022, the USDA estimated that the average daily food budget for an adult in a single-person household ranged from roughly $8-$17.

Based on these findings, cooking meals at home is one way students can reduce costs. Additionally, some schools offer different meal plan tiers. Signing up for a smaller meal plan can give students the flexibility to eat some meals on campus while also saving money by preparing the bulk of their meals at home.

Costs of Housing While on Break

When comparing living off campus vs. on campus, college students also have to factor in the cost of housing during breaks. At most schools, the dorms close over summer break, and some campuses also close the dorms during winter break. That means students need to find housing outside the dorms during those breaks. While many undergrads move in with their parents, others may need to pay for housing.

How Much Does Living Off Campus Cost?

Colleges publish statistics describing their on-campus living costs. But how much does living off campus cost? It's harder to get exact numbers because it varies greatly.

Apartment or House Costs

Rent costs vary widely depending on where you live. In North Dakota, for example, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment was around $679 per month in April 2022, according to Apartment List. In contrast, the median rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Hawaii was $1,817. Across the nation, renters pay around $1,137 per month for a one-bedroom apartment.

College students can lower costs by splitting rent with roommates. When apartment-hunting, make sure to factor in upfront costs like a security deposit.

Transportation Costs

Unless you're lucky enough to live within walking distance of campus, living off campus means you'll need transportation to school. Many college students own a car, which can add thousands of dollars per year to your budget. Make sure to factor in parking costs on campus, and be aware that not all schools provide parking for students. Undergrads can also qualify for public transportation discounts or consider other transportation methods.

Utility Costs

In a dorm, your boarding costs cover utilities. But in a rental, you'll likely need to pay for things like water, electricity, natural gas, and other utilities. How much can utilities add to your expenses? This can vary widely depending on your location and climate. However, Apartment List reports that renters in the U.S. pay an average of $240 per month in utilities. This likely represents a significant part of your budget.

Internet Costs

College campuses provide students with access to high-speed internet. But when you're not on campus, you'll need to pay for internet access yourself. How much does internet cost? According to FCC data collected in 2022, the median cost for broadband internet in urban areas is around $70 per month. And internet is one area where college students should avoid cutting costs — you'll likely need reliable internet access for school.

Furniture Costs

Unless you rent a furnished apartment, off-campus living also means furnishing an apartment. Renters will need many of the same dorm essentials as on-campus students, including sheets and towels, but they'll also need to find tables, chairs, and other furniture. Many college towns have second-hand shops that sell low-cost furniture, and you may be able to find some stuff for free if you peruse online listings or curb lawns at the end of an academic term.

On-Campus vs. Off-Campus Living: Which Is Cheaper?

Is it cheaper to live on or off campus? If you rely on public transit and cook most of your meals at home, living in an off-campus, one-bedroom apartment might run you roughly $1,500-$1,800 per month — more than the monthly cost of on-campus room and board. But with roommates, off-campus living could save you money.

When deciding which option is right for you, research the cost of renting in your area and consider the benefits of living on campus. The cost of living varies significantly depending on where you go to school.

How to Save on Housing Costs While Attending School

What are the best ways to cut housing costs during college? Fortunately, college students can lower their living expenses by following a few steps.

Live Off Campus With Friends

Renting an apartment can easily cost more than $1,000 per month, depending on your location. But splitting an apartment or house with roommates can cut housing costs dramatically. Consider finding a rental house or asking a friend to be your roommate. You can also check out our tips on finding a college roommate.

Pay for Housing With Financial Aid

Many students think financial aid only covers tuition. However, you can often pay for housing using financial aid. Here are some options for using financial aid to help cover housing costs.

  • Direct Student Loans: You can typically use student loans to pay for room and board. This includes both on-campus housing in the dorms and off-campus housing.
  • 529 Plan: A 529 plan lets families save for college in a tax-advantaged account. Students can use their 529 funds to cover qualifying educational expenses, including housing.
  • Prepaid State Tuition Plan: In some states, families can prepay tuition for public colleges and universities. Although most of these plans only cover tuition, prepaying tuition can help free up money to pay for housing.