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How College Housing Options Work

Last updated February 21, 2024

As you work your way through the summer before college checklist, you'll notice that an important component of ensuring you have a smooth transition to school is to secure your housing plans. Many schools will require students to live in dorms if they are under 18 or 19 or are attending school from out of state. Be sure to check in with your school to learn about their housing requirements for first-year students so you understand what your options are before researching and finalizing your plans. With this in mind, here are a few common college housing options, how they work, and the pros and cons of each.

Living in a residence hall (dorm)

A majority of first-year college students live in dorms. At some point during the summer, your school's student life or admissions office will reach out to you to gauge your interest in living in the dorms. If you want to live in a dorm, be sure to respond to their message and complete any action items they ask you to take care of, such as:

  • Completing their survey about your lifestyle preferences (e.g., if you’re an early riser or night owl and if you're strict about keeping your space tidy or don’t mind a bit of mess) so you can be matched in a dorm and with a roommate who shares your preferences.
  • Submit a deposit that holds your spot in your dorm.
  • Sign any waivers or contracts before moving in.

Different schools will require you to complete and submit different types of materials, so be sure to check your student portal to learn more about what you’ll need. If you have any questions about the cost of dorming, you can contact your school's financial aid office to learn more.

Pros of living in a dorm

  1. Making community. Living in a dorm is a common way that first-year college students make new friends.
  2. You’re close to everything on campus. When living in a dorm on-campus, you'll be close to many things within walking distance, such as your classes, food spots, study lounges, gyms, and more.
  3. Amenities. It’s common for dorms to have things such as TVs, pool tables, or video games for students to use in their downtime. In addition to these amenities, schools typically require students living in dorms to purchase a meal plan for the dining hall. Dorms are typically small spaces, so unless there's a shared kitchen, cooking options are limited. With a meal plan, you'll have access to on-campus dining.

Cons of living in a dorm

  1. Cost. Dorming is typically more expensive than living in off-campus housing; the specific cost will be broken down in your financial aid award letter from your college. Some schools will require students to pay for their housing up front, while others allow students to pay every term. Be sure to look on your school’s housing portal for a payment schedule. Your meal plan can potentially be another con. Because you're required to buy one when dorming, you could be spending more money up front, and you may be limited in your options. The cost of meal plans is usually divided by meals per week, and the more meals per week that you purchase, the more expensive your meal plan is going to be.
  2. Noise and lack of privacy. With many people on your floor or in your building, it might be difficult to get some privacy and find some alone time. While having people around can be fun, it can also be distracting at times– especially when you need to focus on studying or homework.

Off-campus housing

Living off-campus is a great option for students who want to cut down on the cost of living and gain some independence during their first year of college. Many colleges have student-run Facebook groups where students and alumni can look for a place to live and post any open spots in their house or apartment. If you want to live off-campus, be sure to start your search in these types of groups. Additionally, your college's housing department may have off-campus housing resources, so make sure to check there as well.

If you are able to live off-campus, there will be a few things you must take care of during the summer before moving in: 

  • Sign your lease or sublease.
  • Make your arrangements to move in: determine who will help you, what you’ll need, how long you expect moving to take, etc.
  • Calculate your total cost of living– including rent, groceries, utilities, and more– to ensure you’ll be able to afford it every month.
  • Talk with your new roommate(s) and set ground rules about things such as chores, paying bills on time, or any lifestyle expectations or house rules you want to make together.

Pros of living off-campus

  1. Independence. Whether you choose to live off-campus alone or with roommates, you'll be independent in the sense that you're responsible for your security deposit and lease, moving fees, keeping up with bills and paying rent on time, groceries and food for yourself, laundry, and managing your mail. This can be a new and challenging experience, but rewarding in the long run!
  2. Privacy and space. If you’re someone who needs some extra privacy, living off-campus might be for you. Even if you have roommates, there will likely be fewer people around than if you were living in the dorms. This means less distractions and a bit more privacy.

Cons of living off-campus

  1. Difficulty making friends or community. It can be more challenging to make friends in college if you’re not on or around campus as much as a student who’s living in a dorm.
  2. Less convenience. Depending on where you live, you might not have the same easy access to things like food or study spots as a student who’s living on campus. 
  3. Getting to campus. Even if you don’t live far from campus, you will still need to make an effort to get there for classes or meetings. Walking or driving to campus can take time out of your day to study or see friends.

Commuting from home

Some students attending college close to home prefer to live there and commute to school. This is a great option for students looking to cut down on living expenses.

Pros of commuting from home

  1. Saving money. You can save money by living at home, especially if you don't need to pay rent. This can significantly cut down on college expenses in the long run!
  2. Being close to loved ones. Starting college can be an intimidating transition for many, and having your loved ones around during this time for extra support can be beneficial.

Cons of commuting from home

  1. Lack of independence. College students living at home might find it difficult to get some time or privacy to study, do homework, and decompress after a long day.
  2. Difficulty making friends or community. It can be more challenging to make friends in college if you’re not on or around campus as much as a student who’s living in a dorm.

Have any questions about college housing? Text #College to 33-55-77 to chat with one of our advisors. If you're using a mobile device, click here to have the text message set up for you!

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