Living off-campus has many perks including more space, privacy, and freedom than most on-campus dorms. However, not all college campuses and residence halls are created equal—in some cases, living on-campus is almost always the best option. Before you decide to live off-campus, consider the cost of attendance, expenses, campus residency requirements, campus life, and the local housing market.
Cost of Attendance and Room and Board Costs
When you submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you’re asked to choose if you plan to live on-campus, off-campus, or with parents. Many schools have a different cost of attendance for each scenario. Students who live off-campus usually receive a smaller allowance for room and board than students who live on-campus, such is the case at Johns Hopkins University. Other institutions, such as Northwestern, have the same cost of attendance for all students. In addition, some colleges also choose to distinguish between in-state and out-of-state students that live off-campus.
Most importantly, many colleges offer little to no room and board assistance for students who live with parents, presuming costs such as rent and food will be covered. For example, UCSB offers a smaller rent and food allowance for students that commute (live at home) compared to students who live off-campus.
If you plan to live off-campus, verify the cost of room and board with the financial aid office. If you change your accommodation plans after completing the FAFSA, be sure to report this change to your financial aid office before accepting your financial aid award. Failing to report a change in your living status before you accept financial aid could result in an adjustment in your financial aid award.
If you plan on using federal financial aid or a 529 plan to cover your accommodation costs, it’s important that your expenses don’t exceed the university’s cost of attendance for off-campus students. If your off-campus accommodations exceed what is deemed necessary by your institution, you could be responsible for paying out of pocket.
Even if you use a 529 college savings plan, you still have to follow guidelines. Spending more than the published guidelines in the cost of attendance could result in your 529 distribution being deemed a non-eligible educational expense subject to taxes.
For some students, attending events on-campus, frequent trips to the library, and daily lunches with friends at the dining hall are essential. Balancing studies with a healthy social life is crucial to avoiding stress in college. For this reason, many colleges require students to live on-campus their first year, and at some colleges, such as Smith College, students live on-campus all four years.
Some students report feeling isolated when living off-campus. However, if you’re an upperclassman with a solid group of friends and a packed social calendar, on-campus life may not be as important. For senior students, isolation is less likely to be a problem.
At some institutions, living on-campus for your first year or all four years is a requirement. If this is the case, you’ll be required to select housing in residence halls unless you can make a good case for living off-campus. Local students that live within driving distance to the university are often an exception to the on-campus-residency requirement.
All other factors considered, the most important thing to review before making your final decision to live off-campus is the local housing market. The rental market often fluctuates with the economy. When mortgage rates surge, fewer people are buying homes, and apartments are harder to find.
It is likely that several months will pass between the time that you complete your FAFSA and move to campus to start classes. Before making a final decision, do your research into current and projected housing conditions and speak with a realtor familiar with housing areas near the university.
Deciding to Live Off-Campus
After reviewing the housing market, campus requirements, expenses, and more, you should have a good idea if living off-campus is the right solution for you. If you plan to live off-campus, be sure to contact your institution's financial aid office. Many universities have an office of residential life or representative dedicated to assisting students who reside off-campus.