Accommodation options for college students

December 13, 2021

DegreeChoices Staff

Whether you are a prospective, current or non-traditional student, there will likely come a time in college when you make the decision to either stay in a terrible class or drop it. Dropping out of a class is never a decision to take lightly as there are many reasons why it can be worse to drop than to stay and suffer though. By the time you have finished reading this, you will be prepared to make these decisions and informed about the potential consequences.

Students need to decide whether they want to stay on or off campus based on their financial constraints, academic commitments, and social desires.

You have chosen your school, received your acceptance letter, and have your financial aid package ready to go. Before you head off to school, though, you need to know where exactly you are going to live. There are plenty of options to choose from when considering housing for college, and with careful planning, you can make the most of your experience living autonomously during your studies.

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 that match the needs of the individual student, including availability and the process of securing a room.

Types of student 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 on average. The average cost of living on campus ranges between $8,000 and $12,000 per year and usually includes a meal plan.

Living in a dorm on campus means you will be relatively close to academic buildings where classes are held.

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 will be 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.

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. The average cost for this type of housing is $10,965 per 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.

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. The cost for students of private rentals average $7,056 per year.

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.

Policies, meal plans, and other considerations


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

Another factor that can determine whether you live on campus is if you are a full- or part-time student. 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. This can limit opportunities for part-time students to participate fully in campus life. Students who transition to a full-time schedule are eligible for student housing.

Housing lotteries

Freshmen are typically housed in specific dormitories or purpose-built facilities. 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.

Meal plans

Most full-time students living in student housing pay for a meal plan included in their accommodation package. This gives students access to campus dining halls, as well as other university-associated eateries such as coffee shops or food courts. While each institution differs, most offer a selection of  plans that cater to the various dietary needs of the students, ranging from light to heavy. Students swipe their student ID or meal card to order meals, snacks, or drinks. Some institutions also have off campus, part-time, or commuter options that represent the lightest plans for students who dine on campus just a few times a week.

Just as with housing, freshmen are usually required to have a meal plan, which can reduce the stress of their transition to college.

Meal plans are great for students who do not want the hassle of grocery shopping, meal planning, or cooking. Just as with housing, freshmen are usually required to have a meal plan, which can reduce the stress of their transition to college. After meeting this initial requirement, some students choose to cut back or eliminate their meal plan in favor of independent meals. This can be especially useful for students who move off campus. These students often share housing with other students who can share meal planning and preparation responsibilities.

Weighing up the benefits and disadvantages of on- and off-campus accommodation

Depending on the size of your college or university, choosing to live on or off campus can color your college experience. Factors such as the availability of public transportation and whether you have a car can have a significant impact on your daily routine, study schedule, and social life. Yet, the difference in commute is not the only factor influencing this decision. Finances, social preferences, housing availability, and your level of autonomy all impact the decision whether to live on or off campus.

On campus Off campus
close to classes can be a commute to classes
all-inclusive rent, plaid in a lump sum rent paid monthly
can be expensive can be cheaper than on-campus options
scholarships can be applied to accommodation payment is separate from financial aid
often only available during the school year available year-round, good for summer classes
privacy and noise can be an issue more privacy
students follow on-campus rules more independence, campus rules don’t apply
associated with stronger academic performance risk of less academic engagement
making friends and staying engaged is easier 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.

Alternative housing

For students with an interest in a particular area of study, from a specific background, or who identify with a particular group— may 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

Final words

For incoming freshmen, there is no need to worry too much about where you will live for your first 2 semesters at school. The experiences gained in these first months can reveal your preferences about how you like to organize your life and the kind of people you allow in. 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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