How to afford your room and board

Campus Housing

By Toni Martello

Room and board: the two things you really can’t live without during college (or at any other time, for that matter). Aside from tuition, this is the most expensive aspect of college life. Average room and board at four-year public universities ran $7,407 a year in 2007-2008, and at private colleges it’s even more expensive, averaging $8,595 according to the College Board. Because they own the facilities and have a captive customer base, colleges can get away with charging way more than independent housing and food providers in the real world. While you may end up having to pay the full school price, there may be steps you can take to reduce your bill.

Depending on your school, your city, and your living needs, you should compare prices both on and off campus to see where the best deals are. Some schools offer dorm rooms at a flat fee, while others charge different prices for different housing set-ups (the least expensive will typically be one-room doubles in large dorm buildings, while swanky single rooms or spacious suites might come with bigger price tags). But financial aid usually only covers the cheapest housing price no matter where you live, leaving you with a difference of potentially several hundred dollars per semester. If the difference is substantial and something you are unable or unwilling to pay, you should know that ahead of time so you can choose a room that fits your budget.

Some schools offer a “comprehensive fee” for housing, meaning that underclassmen pay one flat fee no matter what housing they choose, while upperclassmen pay another, slightly higher fee. In these cases, financial aid typically covers the class-appropriate cost, and seniors are not forced to decide between paying the price difference out-of-pocket or living in freshman housing.

Living off campus can be challenging for several reasons. For one, if a school has ample housing, it is not in its interest to allow students to pay someone else for a room. Thus, some schools don’t allow students to live off campus, barring extenuating circumstances. At other schools—especially large ones where housing is in high demand—moving off campus might be the norm. 

Housing may be much cheaper off campus. Smaller cities often have houses or apartments close to college campuses that rent for reasonable rates and are designed for students. On the other hand, apartments in some places (such as in New York City) can be much more expensive. In those cases, school housing might be available at subsidized prices that you would never find off campus.

If it is financially advantageous for you to live off campus, take your time and put some effort into looking for housing. If possible, speak to former residents and try to get input from fellow students about where the best housing is. If this is your first time living off campus, you might not be aware of all the necessities you need to buy to live on your own. For instance, most schools provide basic furniture in all of their dorms. Check in with students who’ve made the off-campus move before—they might have a checklist of essential items to help you pack.

Another advantage (or disadvantage, depending on how you look at it) is that the “board” in “room and board” covers food—meal plans, student center snacks, any bites you grab between classes. In fact, many schools have policies requiring students living on campus to purchase meal plans or even automatically combine meal plans with housing contracts (although some allow commuters to buy into limited plans at reduced prices). With the rising price of food, taking your meals into your own hands might make financial sense. Statistics tell us that the average American spends $7 a day on food, but the average daily price of a dining-hall meal plan is several times that. If you can count on packing your own PB&J daily, skipping out on the meal plan might save you hundreds of dollars every semester. However, if you think you’ll be tempted by late-night pizza delivery and all-you-can-eat brunch buffets, it might be more pennywise to buy a plan. Be real: do you know how to use the stove? And will you?   

In many ways, living on campus can seem like a practice run for the “real world.” Campus safety officers are more lenient than the police, and there are fewer chores and bills for you to handle on your own. You forego those benefits when choosing to live off campus, but if it can shave a few thousand dollars off of your total debt, it might be worth the investment. Here’s a handy rundown of some of the pros and cons of living off campus to consult when you’re making your decision:


  • Depending on how far your housing is from campus, the distance may impact your social life. If you go to a commuter-friendly college, it’s no big deal, but if everyone opts for dorms, you might miss the community experience if you’re in your own apartment.

  • School maintenance staff won’t be on call 24 hours a day to fix your cold shower or busted furnace. While landlords are required to take care of these issues, response times vary, and, unlike school maintenance workers, they’re not as attuned to student schedules.

  • Finding decent housing can be tricky—many landlords are wary of renting to students or to people without housing references. Those who will may take advantage of a student’s limited options or naïveté. Know your rights in order to protect yourself.  You can check out a list of tenant’s rights by state at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development web site.

  • If you find yourself in trouble, you may end up dealing with the real police rather than campus public safety.

  • It is the duty of the university to act as your parent while under their care (the technical term is in loco parentis). The institutional umbrella is there to nurture and care for not only the student but also the person as a whole. If you’ve been fending for yourself for a while, this care may be welcome and can even feel indulgent and luxurious.


  • Money! Depending on your school, living off campus could cost literally half as much per month as living on campus. With the money you save, you can take out fewer loans or use the difference to pay for other things, like car payments and food.

  • Fewer restrictions on your behavior and activities. No one can tell you who can visit or for how long they can stay. If you’ve been slapped with fines for rule-breaking candles, mirrors, or paint jobs, living off campus can give you a chance to live free from overbearing university policies. And if you’ve got a car, you don’t have to shell out for the extra school parking permit (although your municipal government might require one). 

  • Living off campus really is a practice in independent living. You have to deal with the lease, pay your utilities, clean, and buy your own supplies. It adds to your “real world” experience. You may find that a more independent style of living matches your self-concept, and if you’ve been self-reliant for years, you may not need the hands-on attention found in the dorms.