On-campus vs off-campus housing

Olga Knezevic
Olga Knezevic

Olga is an in-house editor and writer at Degreechoices.com. She has previous experience as a higher education instructional designer and a university librarian. Olga is passionate about well-crafted sentences, Wikipedia rabbit holes, and the Oxford comma.

On-campus vs off-campus housing

    You have chosen your school, received your acceptance letter, and have your financial aid package ready to go. Yet before heading off to school, you need to arrange where you are going to live. With plenty of accommodation options to choose from, and with some careful planning, the experience of living autonomously during your studies can make for great life-long memories.

    Each university has its own rules and regulations when it comes to student housing. Students need to decide whether they want to stay on or off campus based on their financial constraints, academic commitments, and social desires. To help with this decision, colleges offer guidance about accommodation options to match the needs of the individual student, including availability and the process of securing a room.

    On-campus housing

    Most 4-year colleges and university students have access to 3 main types of housing:

    • residency halls (dormitories or dorms)
    • privately developed purpose-built housing
    • rental housing


    While dorms are often what incoming freshmen consider first, dorms make up only 22% of total housing options. Dormitories are usually on campus, making them a good choice for students looking to participate in campus activities and events.

    Life in dorms varies substantially depending on your college and the specific building you live in. Boston College, for example, has dormitories ranging in capacity from 7 to 206 people. Living in a dorm on campus means you are relatively close to academic buildings where classes are held. For incoming freshmen, dormitories can be a great place to make friends and find a sense of community.

    Affiliate housing

    The second most common housing option for university students is purpose-built, on-campus housing developed by private organizations specifically for students. Sometimes referred to as affiliate housing, the 23% of students who use this option benefit from amenities designed specifically with their social and academic needs in mind. These apartments are usually within walking distance of the university, offer individual leases tied directly to the academic year, and are typically fully-furnished.

    Off campus housing

    At 67%, rental housing off campus is the most common type of housing for college students. This option is often more popular with upperclassmen compared to freshmen, who are usually required to stay on campus or live in university housing for their first year. Students living in rental houses secure this accommodation without the assistance of their school’s residential life services and often live with other students.

    For students ready for more independence, living in a shared apartment or house can be a good choice. Leases for private rentals are not usually based on an academic calendar, which can be a disadvantage of this type of housing. For students staying for a summer semester or local job, however, this represents a good opportunity for stable housing while completing your degree.

    Undergraduate vs graduate housing

    As many colleges offer a housing guarantee for freshmen, incoming students are likely to live on campus. Other institutions may offer guaranteed housing for all undergraduate students. Regardless of their year of study, the undergraduate living experience is often on campus allowing students to be directly involved with the college community, while taking advantage of college resources.

    Graduate students are more likely to live off campus in shared houses, apartments, and affiliate housing. With needs less oriented toward developing life skills and making friends, these students do not rely as heavily on the college for activities, events, and support as undergraduates. As graduate students may have partners and families, some universities offer resources on campus in addition to specialized housing options. These options include support such as psychological services and childcare.

    Is it better to live on or off campus?

    Living off campus gives students more privacy and freedom. Although on campus can be more social, most students opt to live off campus. Other factors such as the availability of public transportation, whether you have a car, your daily routine, study schedule, and social life can help you choose a living arrangement best suited to your needs.

    Finances, social preferences, housing availability, and your level of autonomy will also impact the decision whether to live on or off campus.

    On campus

    close to classes

    all-inclusive rent, plaid in a lump sum

    often only available during the school year

    privacy and noise can be an issue

    students follow on-campus rules

    associated with stronger academic performance

    making friends and staying engaged is easier

    Off campus

    can be a commute to classes

    rent paid monthly

    available year-round, good for summer classes

    more privacy

    more independence, campus rules don’t apply

    risk of less academic engagement

    can be isolating

    Knowing about various accommodation options for college can be a comfort for students who do not find the right fit on the first try. If you choose to live off campus and find your GPA slipping as a result, you have the option to return to living on campus with easier access to tutors, advisors, and other support systems – to get you back on track.

    Upperclassmen may choose different housing as they grow and mature, moving into more independent living arrangements as they prepare for life after college.

    Is it cheaper to live on or off campus?

    Comparatively the cost of living on or off-campus doesn’t differ too greatly because students often need to pay for their own furniture, utilities, food, and transportation when living off campus. The cost of living in certain states or cities can be dramatically different from others which can influence what type of housing is more affordable. Additionally, certain campuses have higher prices for room and board compared to others.



    Affiliate housing


    Private rentals


    Dormitories are a popular option for freshman who want to completely immerse themselves in the college experience. The average cost of living on campus ranges between $9,395 to $12,540, but the average amount is $11,303 per year and usually includes a meal plan.

    Whether you are choosing to live on or off campus learning how to budget is an essential part of life as a college student.

    Does FAFSA cover housing?

    Yes, on the FAFSA you indicate your housing arrangements allowing cost of living to be factored in to the awarded financial aid. There are several questions on the FAFSA that inquire about a student’s perspective or current housing plans. Whether you are choosing to live on or off campus your financial aid budget takes into account the standard cost of living on or off campus.

    Special interest housing

    For students with an interest in a particular area of study, from a specific background, or who identify with a particular group— can often choose to stay in special interest housing. This can include Greek housing, where students rush and pledge a particular fraternity or sorority to live in their chapter’s house. Other colleges offer clubs or organizations the opportunity to arrange housing for members to live together.

    The following may be represented in special interest housing:

    • Black, Latino, Asian houses
    • performing arts houses
    • LBGTQ+ houses
    • healthy living houses
    • language houses
    • sustainable living houses
    • gaming houses

    Other things to consider

    Cost and privacy aren’t the only things to take into account when choosing student housing. Oftentimes there are lotteries, pre-determined housing, and limitations depending on your class load.

    Pre-determined housing

    Housing for the first year of college is often pre-determined. Most institutions stipulate that freshmen live in university-provided housing, while others may extend this requirement to sophomores. There are exceptions to this rule that allow some students to arrange their housing independently. According to our research of numerous schools, the following exemptions are the most common:

    • students who live with their parents
    • students above a particular age, usually 21
    • students who are married
    • students who have children
    • students with medical conditions requiring special conditions unavailable in college housing

    Full vs part-time students

    College housing, whether on or off campus, is not usually available to students studying part time. These students may live with parents or arrange their own housing off campus. Students who transition to a full-time schedule are eligible for student housing.

    Housing lotteries

    Sophomores, juniors, and seniors who want student housing usually find a room by participating in a lottery system. The lottery, where each student is given a randomized number, typically takes place in the spring semester in preparation for the upcoming school year. Students interested in keeping their current room can usually indicate this in advance, reserving the room for the coming academic year.

    Final words

    Your college experience is enhanced and nurtured by your choice of housing. Students who find their ideal living arrangement are able to make the most of their college years. Whether you stay in a dormitory, shared apartment, sorority, or housing unique to your campus, your first years living away from home are a chance to learn about yourself and grow your independence as you prepare for your foray into fully-independent living.

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