First-year college students often are expected or required to live in residence halls or dormitories. In subsequent years, it’s usually up to those students to decide whether to reside on or off campus.
“We believe that living on campus for your entire time here during your college career really helps to complement your educational career,” says George Stroud, vice president and dean of student life at Dickinson. “It connects you more with the campus, with the facilities, with your peers and with the faculty. It allows students to easily access programs and labs and things of that nature. And so we really believe that having students here on campus for the four years really helps to build a better community.”
There are exceptions, however. At OWU, a student is exempt from the requirement if he or she is a commuter, fifth-year senior, at least 23 years of age, married, a parent to a dependent child, has medical or psychological needs that cannot be met by the institution or lives with parents or a legal guardian.
Living on campus has been shown to increase graduation and retention rates as well as improve academic performance, especially among first-year students, says Dwayne K. Todd, vice president of student engagement and success and dean of students at OWU.
“A number of indicators around success are quite clear in decades of research,” he adds, “so that’s why schools like ours do have a living requirement to create the best environment for student success.”
Residential housing is not limited to shared dorm rooms and communal bathrooms. Other alternatives include suites, apartments, Greek houses or living-learning communities for students with shared interests.
On-campus students have access to services and resources such as residence life staff who can provide assistance if a housing issue arises.
“The social experience of living with so many fellow new students is a unique opportunity to make lifelong friendships,” Brendon Dybdahl, spokesperson for university housing at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote in an email. “Our staff can help students navigate roommate issues or move to another room if necessary, while students who live off-campus are locked into a lease with few options to manage roommate conflicts. We also have academic resources in our residence halls for tutoring, advising and class sections.”
It can also be a safer environment, especially during the coronavirus pandemic as residential students were regularly monitored, quarantined and tested, says Rose Pascarell, vice president for university life at George Mason University in Virginia.
“We have a vaccine clinic on campus,” she adds. “There’s also a health clinic on campus staffed by physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants that residential students have access to. … I can tell you on any given week how many students on campus had tested positive. We had a way to quarantine those students in a residence hall that was off limits to everyone except those that were exposed.”
On the other hand, off-campus living provides a student with more independence, as he or she is not constrained to school housing policies. It can also be better for students with severe food allergies or dietary restrictions, according to Cyndy McDonald, a career coach in California and member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.
At first glance, off-campus housing can appear as the less-expensive option. But the additional expenses outside of rent like utilities, groceries, internet access, cable and furniture are often overlooked.
“I would encourage students to really read their contracts,” says Lisa Ortiz, interim director of housing and residence life at Ferris State University in Michigan. “That is something that I’ve heard from students that they don’t realize those hidden fees and the different aspects of what the contracts are truly telling them in terms of cleaning and other things as they move out of the apartment. So we definitely want our students to fully understand what they’re committing to.”
To reduce off-campus costs, some students choose to overpack houses or apartments, sometimes with four or five people in a two-bedroom house, experts say.
But unlike off-campus housing, the total cost of living on campus is typically all-inclusive – covering rent, utilities, furniture, Wi-Fi and a meal plan.
At GMU, where students are encouraged to live on campus for at least the first year, the average cost of a traditional double room with an “Independence Plan” – the mandatory meal plan for residential freshman and sophomores with unlimited access to dining halls – is $12,630 for the 2021-2022 school year. The school estimates off-campus housing – outside of living with parents – to be $13,268, but prices can be higher or lower based on number of residents.
Another factor that plays into cost is the length of a lease. Residence halls follow an academic schedule while landlords at off-campus properties often require a full year. In such cases, students not taking summer classes must either pay for an additional three months or, if permitted, sublet to a replacement tenant.
Some experts say it’s a toss-up between the price differences of living on or off campus because costs can vary based on many components, including location and convenience. Therefore, when making a decision about housing, students should consider more than just the price tag.
“Take a look at your grades, see how you’re doing,” says Russell Mast, vice president for student affairs at Morehead State University in Kentucky. “If you’re struggling then I would say try to stay on campus because those support units are there for you. But if you know how to balance life, if you’re good at time management and budgeting, then take a look at living off campus.”
Financial Aid Options
Though prices are comparable, schools like Ferris State offer financial incentives to students who choose to live on campus. Admitted students can earn up to $2,000, for example, through the school’s Bulldog Housing Bonus program. To qualify, a student must attend a virtual housing information session and submit a housing contract.
Financial aid is also available for off-campus living.
When filling the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA, a student indicates whether he or she plans to live on campus, off campus or with a parent. A set budget is allocated to each student by a college that can be used for rent, utilities, groceries and other housing-related expenses. If the aid does not cover the full cost of rent for the year, students can file an appeal, and documentation is required, according to McDonald.
She adds that student loans are most commonly used to help pay room and board fees.
“Don’t hesitate to ask the financial aid office,” McDonald says. “There’s nothing wrong with being the squeaky wheel. If you don’t know, keep asking. And there’s nothing wrong with writing an appeal. If you are not getting enough money and you need a little bit more then don’t be afraid to ask for more. All they can do is say no. But they can’t say yes if you don’t ask.”