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Are Dorms Cheaper than Apartments?

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Room-and-board is a major expense for a college student. Thus, the debate rages about a fundamental question: Do I save money living on- or off-campus?

The answer: It depends. On several factors.

On the school, the community, the cost of living where the school is located, the number of roommates and the availability of off-campus housing.

The Education Data Initiative says that at four-year public schools, on-campus students pay an average of $11,520 for room and board; off-campus students pay $11,365. At private schools, the on-campus average is $13,028 and the off-campus average is $11,260. Mind you, these numbers are per apartment, and as we will show the cost is lower if an apartment is shared with one, two or three people.

So … an apartment can be less expensive, but it depends.

In New York City or Washington, D.C., or San Francisco or Los Angeles, for example, rents are so high it may be necessary for the college student to share a two-bedroom apartment with three friends to make the cost affordable. But in some rural areas or smaller towns, living off campus can offer financial advantages.

Paying for a dormitory involves paying for convenience. The student is on-campus, meeting new people, and learning the college culture. For this reason, many colleges require a student to live on-campus at least for their first year.

Determining what works best involves research and financial smarts. We’ll go through some of the considerations.

One important thing to keep in mind: Situations are different, so be sure to check with the financial aid office at the college to be sure whatever aid a student receives is approved for off-campus living.

Dorms vs. Apartments

There used to be stark differences between a dorm room and an apartment, but colleges have recognized that dormitories with two-person rooms and bathrooms down the hall might not be appealing to prospective students.

Efforts are being made to upgrade dorm rooms to make them more “apartment” style. Newer dorm rooms may have three or four individual bedrooms, a sitting area and a bathroom shared only by those students.

Some colleges are starting to offer more single rooms, allowing a level of privacy and personal space in a dorm, but the cost could be as much as double.

The less fortunate may attend a college where the old-style dorm room is in effect. That involves sharing a room with another student. The average size is 130 square feet, or smaller than most hotel rooms. The room will be sparse, with two beds and mattresses, a desk and some sort of dresser. Bathrooms and showers will be down the hall and shared by all residents on the floor.

Fordham University starts first year students at its Columbus Circle campus in the old-style dorm, albeit in a building that opened in 2014. In the second year, students move to an apartment-style dorm, with two or three bedrooms, one or two bathrooms and a shared living room and kitchen. Given its location in Manhattan, and that it is surrounded by multi-million dollar condos near Columbus Circle, this dorm living may be the best bargain in New York City.

At other colleges, winding up in a “quad” or traditional double may be a matter of choice. The more perks in the dorm room, the higher the cost. It also can be luck, as first- and second-year students typically are assigned a dorm by the school.

Apartments, if you can find one in the local community, typically can accommodate 1-4 people. A group of students could make the cost much less painful, if they join together and share an apartment.

Living in a Dorm

Dorm life can be a good way for a student to work their way into college life. All students share the same energy and nervousness on arrival, and friendships develop quickly.

Colleges use the term ‘room and board’ to calculate the cost of on-campus housing. It basically means providing a living space, with meals taken through different food plans at various on-campus locations. Room and board includes the cost of the dorm room plus a meal plan. Utilities are included in the cost, though in older dorms it might not be easy to control heat and air conditioning.

Average Cost of Room and Board

The overall average cost for room and board in a four-year college or university is $12,111.

At public schools, i.e., state schools like Ohio State, Michigan or Florida, the average room and board is $11,520. At private schools (Fordham, Vanderbilt, Notre Dame, USC) it’s $13,028.

Keep in mind the payment only covers fall and spring semesters, not the summer. Residence halls also are closed for the holidays, so the cost is basically for nine months.

That works to an average of $1,280 per month at public schools and $1,448 at private schools.

Benefits of Living in a Dorm

While living in a dorm may not sound exotic, there are definite advantages, especially for first-year students. That is why many colleges require first-year and sometimes second-year students to live on campus.

It helps with your transition from home; helps you meet new friends; and helps ease navigating to a new environment. The results of a three-year study by the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International showed that first- and second-year students who live on campus tend to have higher retention rates than those who live off-campus.

Here are some of the benefits of living on-campus:

  • Easy transition to college living: Living on campus eases the transition from living at home to becoming independent. A new city, more responsibility and more advanced courses make for an already difficult academic adjustment. Adding monthly apartment bills like rent and utilities and the task of cooking three meals a day are responsibilities that could make the transition overwhelming.
  • Roommates: When it works, it’s great. Some people become lifelong friends with their first college roommate. But, living with random roommates is always a gamble, so being in a dorm room offers some backstops. A student could file a complaint to campus housing if a roommate is intolerable, or request a room change if things simply don’t work out. Some apartments require 12-month leases, and once all residents sign, they are locked in.
  • Social life: Making new friends is easier in the dorm environment where social functions and events are always in walking distance. Those new friends can turn into roommates if you choose to move off campus later.
  • Offers time to get to know the city or community: Finding a good area to rent in is difficult when you are new to a city. You’ll find it much easier after a year of visiting friend’s apartments and fielding suggestions from classmates that have lived in the area longer.
  • Proximity to classes: Some college campuses are immense, but even with smaller campuses learning the lay of the land takes time. Dorm rooms are close to classes and the library, which will help as you find your way around campus. It’s a good idea to walk your course schedule before school starts to get your bearings. Proximity to classes should help you avoid the temptation to skip. That might account for the results of studies that have shown living on campus can boost GPA by nearly a half a letter grade.

Living in an Apartment

There are definite positives to an off-campus apartment, especially to those in their third or fourth year. A private bedroom, a kitchen to cook in, a living area and a bathroom not shared by many are chief among the benefits.

Apartments also bring more responsibility. Utility bills must be paid, including internet. The last thing anyone wants is to be three months into the school year and realize no one has paid the electric bill. It’s a common scenario that can really damage your credit score when you’re just getting started financially. Nobody wants the first entry on the credit report to read: Late With Utility Payment … 3 months!

Something else to consider is that an apartment may be a 12-month commitment whereas a dorm is only nine months. If you plan to take summer classes, apartments would be an advantage over having to pay additional room and board at the dorms. If you’re not going to summer school, there is the option to sublease the apartment using campus Facebook groups, Facebook marketplace or Craigslist.

Housing in some communities may be offered on a nine-month lease, but the rent likely will be higher.

Average Apartment Expenses

Some estimates say that living off campus can save as little as $600 per school year, or as much as $6,000. But again, it all depends on the cost of rent near the school, as well as the number of people sharing the apartment. The more students in the apartment, the less everyone pays.

When considering costs of an apartment, remember that the average cost varies widely by location. A one-bedroom in New York City averages $3,780 per month. In Columbus, Ohio, it’s $1,020.

Averages are just that, averages. So, let’s consider the average cost for a one-bedroom apartment nationwide:

  • $1,504 per month in rent
  • $175 per month in electric and heat
  • $50 per month in internet.
  • Total average cost is $1,729 per month.

Those numbers are for a one-bedroom apartments. Finding a friend to move into a two bedroom to share expenses could reduce those rates from $1,729 to $977. Total expense could go even lower with more roommates. For instance, if four share a two-bedroom apartment, it means a shared bedroom and less privacy, but a rent cost to each of only $432.25.

Keep in mind that the average monthly food expense is between $300 and $400.

Benefits of Living in an Apartment

The main benefit of an off-campus apartment is privacy. The student goes from a crowded dorm room to his or her own bedroom and space. In some cases, it can save money, especially if roommates are involved.

Here are some of the main benefits of an apartment:

  • It’s your place: For many, the off-campus apartment is the first step toward independence. On-campus rules and restrictions won’t apply (though housing rules in the community will)., and bathrooms aren’t shared with the multitudes. With this freedom comes responsibility, though. Bills must be paid, and the apartment must be kept in good shape.
  • More space: A dorm room is just that, a dorm ROOM. Its space pales in comparison to apartments that have their own kitchen and living area. It’s much more of a real lifestyle.
  • Less expensive food: Eating on campus is handy, but it’s also pricey. Being able to shop for yourself could be kinder to the budget, though it will add the extra time of preparing meals.
  • Sharing a dorm room means sharing a small space with a roommate. It’s not ideal and is a reason colleges are working to modernize their living arrangements.
  • Choosing your roommate: The benefit of living on campus is it allows students to make friends their first and/or second year. Then they can choose the people they want to live with, as opposed to living with a stranger or being assigned a roommate.
  • Independence brings maturity: Suddenly being responsible for bills and the monthly rent provides independence but demands responsibility. Handling things the right way teaches what will be required throughout life and can be an early step toward building good credit and a sound credit score.
  • Potential savings: Shop wisely for the right place and it could be less expensive than a dorm, especially if one, two or three friends are willing to share the space and expenses responsibly.

The Difference in Price Between a Dorm and Apartment

All the numbers we’ve discussed are national averages, so every situation will be different. However, it’s within reason to think that choosing between a dorm and an apartment at different universities in different cities will help lower your college budget.

However, it’s not an easy call.

A recent study showed that half of college students in the United States live on campus. This number is up from 39% in 2019. And it would seem to be a reflection of the improved quality of on-campus housing as well as the rising expenses of off-campus apartments (see why it all depends?).

Living off campus has benefits, but like any major financial decision, it take time to study the market in the city where the student is in college. And if the market prohibits a one-person apartment, the student should be flexible about adding friends who can share the cost. That way, the price can be much more tolerable.

Paying for College

College is a major investment. The average cost in 2023 is $36,436 per year – and $55,840 for a private college. That’s a hefty price to pay for four years. How can college expenses be reduced?

  • Merit-based scholarships: If a student has done well, the college or university could choose to reward a merit-based scholarship.
  • Need-based scholarships: Those who come from families who cannot contribute in major ways to their son or daughter’s education could qualify for need-based scholarships. Parents must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, and declare their income and expenses. Colleges then use this information to determine need, and
  • Pell Grant: The FAFSA automatically determines if a student is eligible for a Pell Grant, which is provided by the federal government. The maximum Pell Grant, based on need, is $7,395 in 2023.
  • Financial aid: Colleges are willing to help reduce costs, to a point. While colleges also rely on loans and are happy to offer loans to students, the schools also have in-house scholarships and grants that are available.
  • Work-study: This federal program allows students to earn money while working on campus. The work sometimes is related to a student’s major. If work-study is not available, a part-time job on campus or close to campus also could help. This money is income and is taxed but having a job while in college does help defray out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Student loans: The numbers are almost staggering. The average student loan debt in the country is $37,388 per borrower, and $54,921 if the student attended a private school. While this number is significant and gets larger with interest, for some student loans are the only way to attend college. It’s best to check every option before a loan, and to calculate what it would mean for the graduate to carry that much debt. If that’s the only option and the degree is vital, student loans do provide an option.

» Learn More: Financial Tips for College Students


Each college has a residence page that lists dorms, their type and location. Some are geared to international students, some are quieter. Some are air conditioned, some are not. Study wisely, then pick the right dorm for you.

While colleges sometimes use a housing questionnaire to best match roommates, many colleges now allow students to choose a roommate. Many schools have Facebook pages for incoming first year students, and many students have success finding a good match.

Word of mouth helps, and it typically comes from getting to know older students who live off campus. Some colleges even provide information on off-campus opportunities at the housing office.

In many cases, yes, especially if there are two or more sharing the apartment. But not in every case. Always do the math before committing – and remember with the apartment come more responsibilities and expenses that are not charged in the dorm.

Yes, it’s a good idea. While there are some drawbacks – a noisy floor, small room, etc. – the advantages are many, chief among them the social aspects of getting to know new people who face the same challenges and adjustments of starting anew in college.

If you plan to live off campus, you’ll need to indicate that when filing your FAFSA. The financial aid calculations are different for students that live in off-campus housing.

You should also check to make sure your financial aid and tuition plans cover off-campus housing. Direct student loans, 529 plans and prepaid tuition plans have certain rules about how the money is allowed to be used.

Direct student loans are deposited directly into a student’s bank account, and the money can be used for any expenses related to education including off-campus living.

A 529 plan can be used for off-campus housing for students that are enrolled in at least half the hours that define a full-time student. But there is a catch. For off-campus housing, the student can only withdraw up to the amount the college or university budgets for the room and board section of its cost of attendance.

Some prepaid tuition plans offered by states also have dormitory plans that only cover the cost of living in dorms. Research your tuition plan to see if it covers off-campus housing. If it doesn’t, you should be able to request a refund.

About The Author

Pat McManamon

Pat McManamon has been a journalist for more than 25 years. His experience has mainly been in sports, but the world of athletics requires knowledge of business and economics. He also can balance a checkbook and keep track of investments with Quicken quite adeptly. McManamon’s experience includes covering the NFL for ESPN, LeBron James for the Akron Beacon Journal and AOL Fanhouse, and the Florida Gators and Miami Hurricanes for the Palm Beach Post.


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