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Tuition & Room and Board: On-Campus vs. Off-Campus Costs

You could save thousands on your room and board by living off campus. But on-campus housing offers benefits, too, such as amenities and all-inclusive costs.

By Kat Tretina
Kat Tretina

Written by

Kat Tretina

Kat Tretina is a freelance writer who covers everything from student loans to personal loans to mortgages. Her work has appeared in publications like the Huffington Post, Money Magazine, MarketWatch, Business Insider, and more.

Edited by Ashley Harrison
Ashley Harrison

Written by

Ashley Harrison

Ashley Harrison is a Credible authority on personal finance who enjoys helping people become debt-free.

Updated April 6, 2023

Editorial disclosure: Our goal is to give you the tools and confidence you need to improve your finances.

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On top of your tuition, one of the biggest chunks of the total cost of attendance for your college education is your room and board. Room and board includes what you’ll pay to rent a dorm or apartment and cover meal costs.

Living off campus could potentially reduce your living costs, which would cut down your education expenses. Some colleges require first-year students to live on campus, but if you can live off campus for the rest of your time there, it would still help your wallet.

Here’s what to know about on-campus vs. off-campus costs for room and board:

What does tuition cover?

Tuition is how much you’ll pay for taking classes at your college. It can also cover administrative fees. How much you pay for college typically depends on how many credit hours you take per semester (it’s usually a flat cost per credit hour), plus whether you’re an in-state or out-of-state student. Keep in mind that your academic program could affect your tuition costs, too.

Certain majors (like engineering, nursing, and business) can end up costing more than other programs. For example, in-state undergraduate students at the University of Iowa paid $9,830 in tuition and fees per year for most majors in 2020. But undergraduate students who study business will pay $11,566, and nursing students will pay $12,646 per year.

How much is tuition on average? The average cost of tuition and fees at a public four-year university for an in-state student is $10,230 per year. And for a private four-year school, the average cost is $35,830.

See: How To Get In-State Tuition for College

What is room and board?

When schools break down the total cost of attendance, you’ll see a line item for “room and board.” This phrase is used to describe the cost of dorm housing and college meal plans. The average cost of room and board for a public four-year university is $11,140 and $12,680 for a private university.

Is the cost of room and board affected by where I go to school? Yes! The cost of room and board can vary widely based on your location and the type of housing you choose. For example, New York University is located in an area with a high cost of living. As such, its room and board for the 2020 academic year was higher than average — $19,244 per year. Compare this to the University of Nebraska Omaha, which is located in an area with a relatively low cost of living. Its room and board is lower than the national average, costing just $10,196 per year.

If you choose a school in an area with a cheaper cost of living, you could dramatically lower your education costs (and reduce how much you need to take out in student loans).

You may not have to live on campus

Some schools require students to live on campus (especially freshmen), but not all do. If possible, it’s a good idea to explore your off-campus options, since you might be able to save money by getting an apartment and preparing your own meals.

Example: Room and board at Millersville University in Pennsylvania is $11,988 per year. Over four years, you’d pay $47,952 just for your housing and meals.

But say you moved off campus and found a three-bedroom apartment. If three people lived in the house and paid $415 per month, it would be only $4,980 per year per person.

The average person spends $4,533 per year on food consumed at home, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you spent that same amount and prepared your meals in your apartment, you’d spend a total of $9,513 on housing and food. Moving off campus would allow you to save $2,475 per year and $9,900 over the course of a four-year degree.

Learn More: How to Take Out a Student Loan

Comparing on-campus vs. off-campus benefits

When deciding whether living on campus or off is best for you, it’s important to consider the benefits and drawbacks of both.

Benefits of living on campus

  • All-inclusive pricing: The price you pay for your dorm includes electricity, water, and internet, so you don’t have to worry about extra costs.
  • Social opportunities: Since you’re on campus, there are endless opportunities to meet new people, join clubs, and get involved in extracurricular activities.
  • Amenities: Campuses often have fairly luxurious amenities you can use, like state-of-the-art gyms, libraries that are open late, swimming pools, and recreation centers.
  • Laundry facilities: Dorms usually have laundry facilities in the building, so you don’t have to drive to a laundromat (or to a parent’s home) to wash your clothes.
  • No transportation necessary: When you live on campus, you can roll out of bed a few minutes before class if you want to. There’s no need to worry about commuting to school, which is especially helpful in rainy or snowy weather.

Disadvantages to living on campus

  • Small spaces: Dorms are notoriously tiny. The average dorm room is only 130 square feet — and you’ll likely have to share that space with at least one other person.
  • Lack of privacy: Besides having a roommate, living on campus means sacrificing privacy in other ways. For example, you probably won’t have a private bathroom. You might even have a communal bathroom for an entire hall, which means getting used to walking around in a robe and toting your things in a shower caddy.
  • Constant distractions: The best and worst thing about college is that there’s always something going on. When you need to focus on your schoolwork, it can be hard to get any peace and quiet.

Benefits of living off campus

  • Larger living spaces: You can get a larger place with an off-campus apartment. For example, you could find an apartment with a bedroom, separate living area, and a private bathroom, which will feel downright luxurious compared to a cramped dorm room.
  • Private rooms: Even if you have a roommate, you can still likely have a private bedroom, giving you privacy and quiet when you need to work.
  • Kitchen access: In the dorms, you don’t usually have access to a stove (or even a microwave). But in an off-campus apartment, you’ll have a full kitchen, which means you can prepare your own healthy meals.
  • Choose your roommate: As a freshman, your roommate might be assigned to you. But in an off-campus apartment, you can choose your roommate (if you need one, that is). This means you can pick someone compatible with your personality and living style.
  • Year-round access: Most off-campus leases are for 12 months. With year-round access, you can stay during summer and holiday breaks, as well as take advantage of class sessions or get an internship.

Disadvantages of living off campus

  • Added costs: Besides your rent and meal costs, you’ll also have to worry about extra expenses like your security deposit, electricity, water, internet, and renter’s insurance.
  • Less access: When you live off campus, you’ll have to make more of an effort to connect with other students and become part of the school community.
  • Commute: Since you don’t live on campus, you’ll have to commute to your classes, group meetings, and study sessions, which can be a hassle.

On-campus housing
Off-campus housing
Inclusive pricing
Kitchen access
Private rooms

Keep reading: How to Pay for Greek Life: Sorority & Fraternity Costs

Paying for room and board both on and off campus

Room and board is one of your biggest education costs. Whether you decide to live in the dorms or an off-campus apartment, some of your options to pay for your housing and meals include scholarships, grants, and federal student loans. Make sure you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible so you can find out what federal aid you qualify for.

If you need additional money to cover the total cost of attendance of your program, private student loans could help fill the gap so you can focus on finishing your degree. Be sure to shop around and consider as many private student loan lenders as possible to find the best deal.

You can compare multiple lenders easily with Credible — you’ll only need to fill out one application (instead of multiple forms) and you’ll be able to see your rates in two minutes.

Check out: How to Cover Tuition Costs With the Post-9/11 GI Bill

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Meet the expert:
Kat Tretina
Kat Tretina

Kat Tretina is a freelance writer who covers everything from student loans to personal loans to mortgages. Her work has appeared in publications like the Huffington Post, Money Magazine, MarketWatch, Business Insider, and more.