Guide to Affordable Student Housing

The transition from high school to college can be an exciting time. New students have many important decisions to make, and choosing where to live can have a drastic impact on their college experience. With housing available both on and off campus, each student should weigh the pros and cons of their various housing options with respect to their personal circumstances. In light of ever-increasing tuition costs and a competitive housing market, budget considerations are likely to factor heavily into this decision.

This guide will cover the relative advantages and disadvantages of different student housing options, focusing on both financial and logistical considerations. This guide offers additional resources for homeless and at-risk learners and aims to help students find the right accommodations for their needs.

Living On Campus

Living on campus is a unique experience but may not be the best choice for every student. What may be a drawback for one student could easily be a benefit to another. The following table outlines some of the pros and cons of on-campus university housing.

Pros Cons
Safety Assigned roommate
Included meal plan Little to no personal space
Onsite cafeteria Communal bathrooms
Close to campus buildings Lack of independence
Maintained facilities Limited access to a kitchen
Social atmosphere Louder/busier environment
Collaborative study opportunities Lack of privacy

On-Campus Housing Options

Below are several options for on-campus student housing that are available at most schools. These include college dorms, student apartments, and Greek life communities. Some general features and typical eligibility requirements for these types of housing arrangements are explained. However, students should research the choices at their specific school to find out which options are available to them.

Dorms and Residence Halls

Most universities offer private and shared dorm rooms. Shared rooms typically house two or three students, while private rooms are single occupancy. Living in a private room affords a student more independence and privacy but is typically more expensive than a shared room. Sharing a room may also provide students with an increased opportunity for socialization. Additionally, the type of bathrooms vary from school to school. Some college dorms have communal bathrooms on each floor that are used by any number of students (from 15 to 50 or more ). Suite-style bathrooms are generally shared by two to four people. Some schools also have gender-neutral bathrooms.

Living with roommates can be an excellent way to make friends in a new environment. Shared experiences with peers can lead to meaningful, long-lasting bonds between students.

Dorms (as an RA)

A resident assistant (RA) is an upperclassman who lives among students in college dorms and provides support and monitoring. RAs are required to have a minimum number of completed credits as a matriculated student at their university to be eligible for the position. They are typically a sophomore or higher and likely had to meet a grade point average minimum to apply. RAs usually have their own private rooms and generally receive free room and board as compensation for their services. Some schools may offer other perks, such as free meals, parking, or tuition discounts. There are disadvantages, however, including an obligation to model appropriate behavior at all times and the requirement to be on-call and available to students in their college dorm at most times.

School Apartments

Student apartments are another type of university housing option that may be available on campus. To live in these units, some colleges require that applicants be upperclassmen, graduate students, above the age of 21, or have a spouse and/or child living with them. The apartments generally range from studio to four bedrooms and may or may not come furnished. Student apartments offer several benefits over dorms, such as private rooms, more spacious accommodations, and better access to kitchen and laundry facilities. They are also preferable to off-campus apartments for students who want to stay close to campus resources and take advantage of the amenities offered to on-campus residents.

Fraternity/Sorority Houses

Greek life represents another student housing option. Living in a fraternity or sorority house is appealing to many students because it provides a built-in social network and many ways for members to get involved in on- and off-campus activities. Residence in a sorority or fraternity house may be available to students of all levels but is often restricted to those who are at least sophomores. Students living in fraternity or sorority houses usually have access to some house amenities, such as housecleaning and meal preparation services, exercise facilities, parking, laundry, and study rooms.

The Cost of On-Campus Housing

Despite their small size, dorms aren’t necessarily cheap. According to the College Board, the average cost of room and board over the 2012-13 academic year ranged from $9,205 at four-year public schools to $10,462 at private schools. However, the cost of on-campus housing varies greatly depending on the specific school and the city; non-tuition-related expenses tend to be greater in areas where the cost of living is higher.

The cost of room and board can vary widely from school to school. In order to give students an idea of the price range they can expect to encounter, the following tables provide a ranking of the top-10 colleges with the most expensive and least expensive fees for room and board; these numbers were found in a study published by U.S. News & World Report.

10 colleges that charge the least for room and board (2016-17)
Rust College, MS $4,100 Auburn University – Montgomery, AL $5,650
William Carey University, MS $4,260 Indian River State College, FL $5,700
Southwestern Oklahoma State University, OK $5,220 University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma, OK $5,720
Alabama State University, AL $5,422 Blue Mountain College, MS $5,839
Louisiana College, LA $5,479 Utah State University, UT $5,870
10 colleges that charge the most for room and board (2015-16)
New School, NY $17,235 Emerson College, MA $15,700
CUNY – College of Staten Island, NY $16,832 Southern Methodist University, TX $15,575
St. John’s University, NY $16,390 Marymount Manhattan College, NY $15,500
San Diego State University, CA $15,826 Smith College, MA $15,470
American Jewish University, CA $15,706 University of California – Berkeley, CA $15,422

Meal plans

Most schools offer meal plans that are included in the university housing package; some even require students to pay for a meal plan as part of living on campus. A variety of plans may be available at on-campus dining halls. Meal cards are sometimes loaded with a predetermined amount of money, which students use to purchase food over the course of a term. Alternatively, students may have unlimited access to food and pay a flat rate based on the meal plan that they selected. According to The Hechinger Report’s study of college and university fees, meal plans average $18.75 per day.

Meal plans are generally available to students of all grade levels. The benefits of having a meal plan when living on campus are mostly related to convenience. Meals are prepared and available throughout the day and make it easier for students to maintain a healthy diet without needing to plan, shop for, and cook their own food. Drawbacks of a meal plan often include its high cost and limited options in terms of dining locations and variety.

Living Off Campus

According to a 2016 New York Times article, 87% of college students live off campus. A majority of these students are upper-classmen; this is due in part to the fact that on-campus dorms are often reserved for freshmen students.

Not all colleges, however, require freshmen to live on campus. According to a U.S. News survey of 247 U.S. universities, around 19% of freshmen commuted or lived off campus in the fall of 2014. The table below lists several benefits and drawbacks that are associated with off-campus housing for both lower- and upper-classmen.

Pros Cons
Independence Less security
Privacy Multiple, separate bills
More space Far from campus
Parking Isolation
Lease flexibility Meal planning
Choice of location Security deposits
Kitchen access Landlord-tenant issues
Private bathroom Housecleaning

Off-Campus Housing Options

Below, we will discuss some of the student housing options available for learners who decide to live off campus. To aid in the decision-making process, the following section provides the relative merits of each option.

Living With Parents/Family

College students, especially new students, often choose to live with parents or relatives while they attend school. This can be an attractive option for many reasons. It is usually considerably less expensive than other student housing options. Additionally, students living with family do not have to adjust to new accommodations or the loss of privacy and comfort that can accompany the transition to college dorms or other forms of university housing. However, living at home can mean a longer commute to campus, fewer opportunities for immersive social experiences with peers, and a lack of access to university resources. Living at home may also interfere with a student’s burgeoning sense of autonomy.

Living Alone

Students may also have the option of living alone off campus. This can appeal to those who prefer a quiet, solitary college experience. Living alone usually means that a student has the freedom to study, sleep, eat, and socialize on their own schedule, without being forced to consider the needs of others. Higher costs and social isolation are potential drawbacks of this arrangement.

Living in a Shared Apartment/House

A shared apartment or house is the preferred choice for many students who live off campus. This may be desirable for several reasons, including lower costs, a more social atmosphere, and convenient opportunities for cooperative study. Limited space, a lack of privacy, and the potential for interpersonal conflict may be drawbacks of this arrangement. Fortunately, students can successfully navigate these pitfalls with careful planning and negotiation, leading to the development of valuable coping and conflict resolution skills.

The Cost of Off-Campus Housing

The cost of living off campus varies depending on several factors, with the location of the residence being the largest variable. According to a 2016 report from the personal finance site SmartAsset, the average cost of renting a two-bedroom apartment in the 15 largest U.S. cities ranges from $886/month (Detroit) to $5,043/month (San Francisco). Meanwhile, the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment in some of the least expensive U.S. cities is as low as $650/month (Toledo). However, these totals do not consider the costs for food, transportation, and other living expenses. These non-rent expenses can add up quickly, especially in areas of the country with a higher cost of living.

The table below lays out the nationwide average values of living expenses that renters incurred in 2010.

Average annual expenditures for renters in 2010
Food $4,802 Housing $12,843
Clothing $1,544 Transportation $5,046
Healthcare $1,518 Entertainment $15,500
Personal Insurance and Pensions $2,907 Total Annual Expenditures: $33,460

The relative cost of living on campus versus off campus can vary widely from university to university. According to a recent report by Trulia, a site that provides neighborhood insights and real estate markets and trends, the cost of living on campus is often higher than renting a shared apartment off campus. The site determined that in 15 out of the 20 cities that were surveyed, on-campus housing was more expensive than living off campus; in some cases, this margin was very large.

The table below compares the cost of on-campus versus off-campus student housing in various U.S. cities. The off-campus values are based on a nine-month lease period for a two-bedroom apartment shared between two tenants. The estimates for on-campus housing include room and board.

Cost of on-campus and off-campus housing for a variety of U.S. cities (nine months)
College On-campus housing Off-campus housing How much cheaper is it to live off campus?
Purdue University – West Lafayette, IN $10,030 $3,071 69%
Loyola University – Chicago, IL $10,330 $6,525 37%
University of Texas, Austin – Austin, TX $11,456 $7,200 37%
University of Washington – Seattle, WA $11,310 $8,528 25%
University of Pennsylvania – Philadelphia, PA $9,060 $7,425 18%
University of California, Berkeley – Berkeley, CA $14,388 $12,375 14%
Emory University – Atlanta, GA $7,720 $6,750 13%

On the other hand, the Trulia report found that on-campus housing is still a relatively good deal compared to off-campus apartments in certain cities. Particularly in some college towns, where the rental markets are among the highest in the nation. A different report from the online real estate database company StreetEasy found that on-campus housing tends to be less expensive at many New York schools, for example.

The table below compares the relative costs of on-campus and off-campus housing in several pricey college towns.

Cost of on-campus and off-campus housing in college towns (nine months)
College On-campus housing Off-campus housing How much cheaper is it to live off campus?
Stanford University – Palo Alto, CA $8,301 $16,650 50%
Columbia University – New York, NY $8,572 $17,098 50%
Boston University – Boston, MA $9,570 $13,478 29%
The George Washington University – Washington, DC $12,050 $14,175 15%
University of California – Los Angeles, California $14,904 $15,300 3%

Other Things to Consider When Living Off Campus

Documents Needed

There are many factors to consider when preparing to rent a house or apartment off campus. Landlords are interested in renting to tenants who can demonstrate that they are safe, reliable, and will adhere to their end of the rental agreement. This may require the production of several documents, such as rental history information, pay stubs or bank statements, personal references, and a criminal background check. First-time renters will likely need a cosigner to secure a lease if they do not have sufficient rental or credit history.

Rental Periods

Many college students choose to rent apartments during the school year and live elsewhere when school is out of session. As a result, they often prefer lease terms that are shorter than the typical one-year lease. These alternatives can include a six-month lease, a three-month lease, or even a month-to-month arrangement. Landlords may be disinclined to agree to shorter leases and sometimes increase monthly rental fees to compensate for the inconvenience.

Up-Front Costs

Students who choose to rent an apartment or house off campus have a long list of associated fees to consider. These include rent, utilities, and internet and cable bills. However, there are several other charges that may come as a surprise when initially signing a lease. Renters usually have to pay a security deposit, first and last months’ rents, and sometimes even a cleaning fee upfront. If the renter has a pet, there is generally a pet deposit. Many of these additional fees are refundable after a lease has expired, but tenants must be able to produce payment upon signing.

Roommates

If a student decides to enter into an off-campus housing situation that involves roommates, it is important for them to be aware that living with another person is very different from being friends with them. A renter should do their best to determine whether or not a potential roommate will be easy to live with in terms of their personality and lifestyle choices. Financially, a roommate should be trustworthy and have a dependable source of income. The presence of pets may also impact the level of compatibility between roommates.

Transportation

Living off campus may mean that students are not within walking distance of their school. It is important for these students to decide how they intend to get to campus for classes, study sessions, and social activities. When weighing off-campus housing options, students may want to consider whether or not a house or apartment is near public transportation systems that can take them to campus. If they choose to drive to class, they should determine if parking is available and how much it costs.

Renter’s Insurance

Students living in off-campus rental apartments or houses should be also aware of renter’s insurance. Renter’s insurance is paid by the tenant to an insurance company, who in turn guarantees the protection of the tenant’s personal property. Many landlords or property management companies require that tenants purchase renter’s insurance. They may provide tenants with a preferred carrier or a tenant can secure insurance themselves. The cost of renter’s insurance varies and is usually based on the value of the property being insured, the chosen deductible amount, and the location of the residence.

Where to Find Off-Campus Housing

  • School Websites

    Some schools, e.g., Princeton University, have dedicated off-campus housing search pages that allow students to connect with landlords and property leasing agents in their area.

  • Craigslist

    Founded in 1995, Craigslist provides free local forums and classified ads for a variety of available housing. A Craigslist search may also yield inexpensive home furnishings or moving services.

  • College Rentals

    College Rentals allows people to search for rental properties that are intended for college students exclusively. The site also provides a useful checklist of the essentials that students will need when moving into an apartment.

  • Uloop

    Students can use Uloop to search for rentable properties within a specified college town. The website also includes other resources for students, such as job boards, tutoring assistance, and textbook exchange opportunities.

  • Rent.com

    Rent.com provides a searchable database of apartments that are listed for rent by geographical area. Students can also consult the site’s blog for helpful moving tips and inexpensive decorating ideas.

  • ForRentUniversity.com

    This website allows students to enter the name of their college or university and find rentals that are available nearby. Students can also check the FAQ page for helpful information about different types of leases and for budgeting tips.

  • Roomlet

    Roomlet helps students verify the legitimacy of rental listings found online. For a small fee, Roomlet will even send someone to a listed property to take photos and meet with the landlord to ensure the authenticity of the posting.

College Housing and Financial Aid

If a student is interested in applying for federal financial aid, they should contact the financial aid administrator at their college. This official will conduct an interview with the student to calculate what is referred to as their “cost of attendance” (COA). In general, the COA is the sum of all costs incurred in the pursuit of a college degree. These costs include tuition, housing, textbooks, supplies, transportation, and food. Individual students may have additional costs beyond those of a typical student due to special circumstances, such as a disability.

Once the financial aid administrator determines the student’s COA, this number is passed on to the federal student aid office. From there, the federal student aid office looks at a student’s ability to contribute to their educational costs. Using these two figures, the federal student aid office decides how much money to lend to the student to help them pay for college.

Will Student Loans Pay for Housing?

Many students applying for federal financial aid ask themselves an important question: will student loans pay for housing? As previously discussed, federal student loans do indeed cover at least a portion of a student’s COA, and this money may be applied to school-related expenses as a student sees fit. Individuals decide how to apply loan money to housing costs, tuition, textbooks, etc. at their own discretion. However, it is unlikely that federal student loans will cover the full COA. Students generally have to find other means to close the gap. These may include taking out private loans, unsubsidized loans, borrowing money from family members, or holding a job while pursuing their degree.

Determining Your Living Expenses

Students interested in determining their expected cost of living while matriculated at a particular university should not rely solely on the living costs estimated by a school’s COA budget. These estimates can be quite inaccurate. Researchers found that nearly half of public four-year colleges overestimate standard living costs by around $1,500, while 10% underestimate living costs by a significant amount. Additionally, nearly 30% of private nonprofit schools greatly underestimate standard living costs. An overestimated COA that leads to an excessive federal loan amount means that a student will be responsible for repaying a larger and more difficult debt. Alternatively, an underestimated COA translates to an inadequate loan, which may mean that a student is unable to pay their expenses.

Students would be wise to devise alternate estimates of their COA and create their own off-campus living budget. Marquette University has a budget-tracking resource, which can be useful for students at any school.

Resources for Homeless Students

Homeless students represent an unrecognized and underserved population. This is due in large part to a gross misunderstanding of the true scope of the problem. A study that included more than 30,000 students at 70 community colleges across 24 states found that 13-14% of students were homeless, while half were housing-insecure. Many of these students are victims of the struggling economy and are unable to find jobs that pay a living wage to workers without a college degree. Another contributing factor to student homelessness is the changing demographics of college applicants. More and more enrollees belong to groups that have not traditionally attended college; these include foster youth and children of parents who did not go to college.

Homeless students face a number of unique challenges. For example, students who are homeless can be shut out of shelters if they are in class when it’s time to secure a shelter spot. Additionally, many schools do not supply sufficient institutional resources for these students, partly because they do not know how many of their students are homeless. The powerful stigma attached to homelessness prevents many students from disclosing their status as homeless or housing-insecure.

Resources Available

Schools often have an office of resident life, or a similar resource, that works to help students find year-round housing at dormitories. Some campuses allow students to live in Greek housing during breaks. There are various community colleges with dorms, such as the NOVA network of colleges, that have an emergency fund specifically for students who may not be able to pay rent. Some schools, such as Portland State University, provide guides for homeless students who are seeking utilities assistance, landlord-tenant legal assistance, food boxes, showers, jobs on campus, and more.

Homeless shelters for college students: Some schools provide homeless shelters on campus for students who find themselves in unstable housing situations. Other universities partner with nearby shelters or temporarily host shelters on site. Shelters that are created and maintained specifically for homeless college students are much better able to meet the needs of students compared to shelters that are intended for the greater population. Student shelters house residents with a common purpose and often provide an atmosphere that is more conducive to studying and overall academic success. However, a lack of awareness of the breadth of student homelessness persists, hampering the ability of these shelters to meet the current need.

  • National Center for Homeless Education The NCHE is based at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and partners with parents, schools, and service providers to ensure that homeless students have access to the education and resources they need to succeed.
  • U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development HUD works with community partners across the country to secure assistance for homeless youth and adult populations. Additionally, HUD devotes resources to facilitate collaborative efforts between homeless service providers and educational systems.
  • United States Interagency Council on Homelessness USICH aims to end and prevent homelessness in unaccompanied youth under the age of 25. This council is responsible for coordinating the federal government’s response to the homelessness epidemic.
  • National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth NAEHCY works to eliminate the obstacles homeless students face while they are pursuing higher education. Its mission is to promote equity for students experiencing homelessness or housing instability.
  • Homes for Students of Higher Education Homes for Students of Higher Education provides homeless students with care packages, shelter, and educational material to increase their awareness of the resources available in their communities.
  • CTLaw Help CTLaw Help is a network of legal professionals committed to providing free legal help to low-income citizens of Connecticut.
  • Sublet.com Sublet.com is a search engine that allows students to find and access affordable housing.

Financial Aid and the FAFSA

Students who are homeless, or at risk of becoming homeless, and “unaccompanied” are eligible to receive student aid; in fact, students are asked about their living status on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). According to the Indiana Student Financial Aid Association, an unaccompanied youth is a student under the age of 21 who “is not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.” A student who is at risk of being homeless is “self-supporting and has been evicted [and] is unable to find fixed, regular, and adequate housing.”

In order to prove that they are unaccompanied and homeless, or at risk of being homeless, students must submit proper documentation. They can secure this designation from their high school or school district representative, the director of an emergency/transitional shelter or housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or the director of a runaway or homeless youth center. If students cannot receive a homeless youth determination from any of the above sources, they can still submit their FAFSA and then seek the determination from their college’s financial aid administrator.

If students wish to complete a FAFSA with unaccompanied and homeless status but they are no longer a youth, they can submit the application without parental information and then request a dependency status appeal through the financial aid officer at their school.

Students interested in obtaining more information related to their dependency status can contact the Office of Federal Student Aid and/or read FAFSA’s tips for unaccompanied youth without stable housing.

Scholarships for At-Risk Students

Dell Scholarship Program $20,000

  • In grades 11 or 12 at an accredited high school, graduating in the current academic year
  • Minimum 2.4 GPA
  • Planning to enroll in a full-time bachelor’s degree program at an accredited university the fall after high school graduation
  • Can demonstrate financial need
  • Qualified for a Pell grant in the first year of college

More Information

Beat the Odds Scholarship $2,500

  • Minimum 3.0 GPA
  • Overcame hardship to find success
  • Provided service to others
  • Demonstrated financial need

Additional Info: Awarded by the Stand for Children Leadership Center to students in Oregon

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Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Scholarship $2,500

  • Verifiable homelessness during high school
  • Admission to accredited two-year or four-year not-for-profit college
  • Minimum 2.5 cumulative, weighted GPA
  • Filed a completed FAFSA

Additional Info: Available to students in Chicago and the surrounding suburban areas

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Hope Through Learning Award $2,500

  • 24 years old or younger
  • Residing in Allegheny County, PA
  • Experienced homelessness during school years
  • Accepted into a post-secondary education or career program beginning before the end of the current year

Additional Info: One- to two-page essay required for application

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Mildred Culbert Kelly & Fred W. Kelly Traditional Student Scholarship Varies

  • High school senior graduating in the current year
  • Minimum 2.5 GPA
  • Pursuing an undergraduate or vocational degree
  • Resident of Saginaw County, MI

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