When you look at the total cost of a college, the price tag you see is the cost of attendance. This is, of course, tuition (the cost of attending classes), but it also includes everything else. We’re talking about an estimated amount for books and supplies, personal expenses, room and board, and transportation.
For a great, quick summary of each of these cost factors, review this College Board breakdown. For this article, though, we are going to focus on room and board, what it means and what to do about it.
What Even is Room and Board?
Room in a college setting is very literally going to be your dorm room. This implies that, included with that roof over your head, you will also receive basic living necessities. Assume that your room will come furnished with a bed, desk and chair and somewhere to put your clothes. Also, plan for it to cover utilities like heat, electricity and - these days - WiFi.
Board will be your meal plan. Along with the basic lodging which is your room, this represents the school's estimated cost of food for each day you live at school. Every college will have a different meal plan or set of meal plan options. Some will have only one dining hall; others will have more flexibility. Some will have finite points or university dollars to use each semester. You may have meal plan options or not. Go to your school’s website for specifics, as the requirements will vary by school and by term.
All in all, room and board means that all of your basic living needs will be provided for a fee.
How Do I Know the Cost of Room and Board?
The price of room and board will vary from college to college. Private schools, for instance, are more expensive. For the academic year 2018-19, four-year non-profit private schools charged $1,540 more annually than their public counterparts according to College Board research. The average cost of room and board for a private college is $12,680; for a public college it is $11,140.
Schools break down the cost of attendance on their pricing or financial aid pages. If you can only find previous and current yearly costs, extrapolate the cost for your first year based on an average price increase. UPenn, for example, presents their housing (room) and dining (board) costs as separate line items for more clarity. Note that UPenn has a fixed on-campus room and board cost as well as an estimated off-campus cost. More on that later.
Room costs vary based on location and housing type/availability, and colleges are required to report the cost of the most expensive meal plan when reporting their board costs. If your school does not discern between tuition and room and board, the majority of their students likely live and eat on campus. But you may be able to save money by choosing a different housing option or meal plan.
Do I Have to Pay Room and Board?
In your financial award letter, you will see the estimated cost of attendance. In that list, look for the room and board line item.
If it is your first year of school, the number provided on that letter is probably the cost of living and eating on campus. Many colleges require that you participate in their room and board plan for at least your first year of school. This ensures that you are on campus, socialize with other students, have ease of access to your classes, are protected by campus security, and take care of yourself to the best that the school can maintain in your first year.
Even if your school does not require you to live and eat on campus, your aid letter will still include an estimated dollar amount for room and board. You still need to live and eat somewhere and so it must be factored into your total cost of attendance. UPenn, for example, uses “the cost of a room in an average two-bedroom apartment over a nine-month period” and the average grocery costs from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, etc. to provide a good estimate of off-campus living.
The off-campus cost your school is providing is an estimate. Use it as a starting budget and see if you can cut costs (i.e., always cook, get a lot of roommates).
Should I Live On Campus or Off?
The best place to start answering this question is by trying to understand your college culture. Are most people on campus? If so, you might miss out on the lifeblood of your school by living off campus. If you’re in a city, almost everybody is probably living in apartments off campus. NCES found that 58% of students going to private schools lived on campus, while only 36% of public school attendees lived on campus. Ask your school.
Paying for set room and board plans through your school will probably be more expensive than cooking for yourself and paying local rent, but there are a lot of benefits to sticking with the plan. For one, it guarantees a flat fee for housing and food. There won’t be any surprise fees or worries about dealing with a landlord and an odd nine-month lease. All housing issues are handled through your housing office.
If you are still torn about living on or off campus, do your budget and see what’s right for you. You might find that for being on campus and part of campus culture, it’s worth the extra dollars to be on your school’s room and board plan.