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By Joanna Nesbit
March 13, 2021
Split image of Dorm living and off campus living with a guy in the center looking puzzled.
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A week before their son, Aspen, was slated to return to Northwestern University last fall, the Buckinghams learned that the university had canceled his dorm contract. Short on time, the sophomore and a friend rushed to find an AirBnB near campus, and he eventually moved into an apartment with a different friend for the rest of the year.

As college reopening plans changed late in the summer last year, families around the country had a similar experience as the Buckinghams, scrambling to find — or get out of — off-campus housing leases. The uncertainty and late-in-the-game changes added more complexity to an already tough process: mapping out how much your college student will have to pay for rent and food.

Now, as more colleges announce plans to return to face-to-face learning for fall 2021, a new bout of incoming students is choosing whether to reserve a spot in the dorms or sign an off-campus lease.

Yet precisely what campus living looks like next year remains to be seen. Will residence halls continue to operate at reduced capacity? If so, some students may be forced to look for off-campus housing. At other colleges that require on-campus living, especially small residential ones, you may have no choice but to live in the dorms.

But if you are deciding, parents and students should spend some time thinking through where to live. It’s a choice that can have financial and social repercussions, even in normal years. Know that campus room and board costs may take a little time to research, but it is possible to come up with a solid estimate. Off-campus costs aren’t as straightforward.

Here’s a guide to sorting through the numbers.

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How to estimate on-campus living costs

For campus living, the two primary costs are a room and a meal plan. Fees vary greatly by college and location. According to College Board, the average estimated costs in 2020-21 ranged from $11,620 at a public 4-year college to $13,120 at private non-profit colleges — but some places charge much more.

To obtain more accurate numbers, look past the estimated room, board, or meal plan price posted on the college website. Those prices are only estimates, and your total will depend on the room plan and residence hall you choose (or are assigned). You’ll need to dig deeper to find the actual rates associated with different room layouts and meal plan options. Keep in mind, next year’s rates may not be posted until late spring, but ballpark it now.

At Portland State University, for example, a double “studio” in 2020-21 costs $5,670 per year, while a single studio with a kitchenette runs $10,980. Students there can choose one of four different meal plans. For example, a PSU student living in a double room with a 15-meal-a-week plan is paying $10,218 this year.

At Colorado College, a residential private college, a traditional double room costs $7,988 for 2020-21, while the required full meal plan totals $5,400.

For colleges with meal plan tiers, student should ask themselves if they’ll eat breakfast every day or be around on the weekends. At many colleges, meal plan dollars roll over to the next term but cancel out at the end of the year.

Some colleges post rates clearly, while others don’t. Try searching “housing rates” and “meal plan rates” on the college website. Call or email the college if you can’t find clear information.

You should also consider a personal property or renter’s insurance policy to protect items against theft or damage. GradGuard, which partners with colleges, offers policies generally starting at less than $15 per month. You can also compare your homeowner’s policy with student policies to determine the best coverage.

Don’t forget dorm accoutrements. Colleges post lists of recommended items, but many students over purchase. Start small and buy as you go to minimize unnecessary spending.

Finally, with the pandemic still in play, families should pay careful attention to housing contract language, says Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach.

“Some colleges added language to their housing agreement that stipulates that refunds will not be given for subsequent campus closures,” she says, cautioning that a fall return is still fluid even though colleges are eager to bring back students.

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What to consider when adding up off-campus costs

Predicting off-campus housing isn’t easy, and relying on living estimates posted on the college website won’t yield hard numbers. According to a 2016 study on college living cost allowances, nearly half of colleges under or overestimate off-campus costs.

The problem with inaccurate estimates? They influence colleges’ total cost-of-attendance predictions, which set the limit on how much a student may be awarded in financial aid (including federal student loans) and how much parents can borrow in federal Parent PLUS loans, says Robert Kelchen, co-author of the study and associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University.

Inaccurate estimates can lead to over- and under-borrowing, or worse, forcing a student to drop out. If a college underestimates the cost-of-living budget, students may need to petition their financial aid office for an increase so they’re able to borrow additional money, Kelchen says. (Financial aid can be used for off-campus living costs.) If the students are parents themselves, they should ask for a childcare allowance.

One thing the Buckinghams learned last year, need-based financial aid applies only to off-campus housing near Northwestern’s campus, not somewhere in another part of the country.

Even with uneven estimates, living off campus may be cheaper, depending on geography, housing type and number of roommates. That was the case for Michelle Blair’s son, who’s a sophomore at Santa Clara University, and his four roommates. They found an off-campus apartment last summer after on-campus housing was closed. The university later announced all classes would be virtual, but they’d already signed a 12-month lease.

For the apartment, the five roommates each pay $575.40 to meet the $2,877 monthly rent (utilities are additional). Groceries are also cheaper than the campus meal plan, Blair says. The university charges $5,324 per quarter (10-week term) for the basic room and board plan, which pencils out to about $2,129 per month.

If Blair’s son were to spend the same amount for his off-campus room and meals as on-campus rates, that would leave $1,554 for groceries after $575 for the apartment rent — a huge eater wouldn’t spend that much. Even with a 12-month lease, Blair’s son comes out ahead.

The Buckinghams’ son and his roommate each pay $897.50 for a two-bedroom in Evanston, plus electricity and gas. At Northwestern, a standard room and full meal plan costs $17, 616 in 2020-21, $2,202 per month for an 8-month academic year.

One way to figure out area costs is to join a college’s parent Facebook page for tips from veteran parents. Some colleges host off-campus spring housing fairs and provide information for off-campus living. The main thing about residing off campus is families should realize it involves upfront costs they might not think of, Kelchen says.

Here’s what to consider for off-campus housing:

12-month lease. Many off-campus abodes require 12-month leases. Explore whether shorter leases or easy subletting during summer are allowed. Also, is your student signing an individual lease or are roommates responsible for covering rent if someone moves out? Blair recommends a roommate agreement to identify potential conflicts, as well as a safe location with easy access to groceries.

First/last/security fees. Upfront fees may include the rent for the first and last month, application fee and security deposit, divided among roommates. Blair’s son, for example, paid $943.75, one-quarter of $3,765 that covered first month, application fee, security deposit, renter’s insurance, and a shared furniture hauling fee. There’s a good chance parents will be asked to co-sign the lease agreement. That means you can be held responsible for expenses that pop up, so make sure your student does a review of any damage and takes photos for the rental manager, says dad Royce Buckingham.

Utilities. Some private student apartments include most utilities, charging for heat only. Others charge utilities on top of rent. Ask the property manager or current tenants about typical bills.

Rental insurance. It may be required, and parent homeowner policies likely won’t extend to off-campus housing. Blair’s son and roommates picked up a policy for $142 per year. Double check that it includes liability coverage to cover incidents like a kitchen fire, a broken window or a visitor’s fall down the stairs.

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Furniture and supplies. Some student housing developers offer furnished apartments, but many don’t. For cheap furniture, haul it from home, check campus free-and-for-sale boards, scour local thrift stores, or purchase items from students moving out this spring (the timing for new students often doesn’t work). Some campuses have Trash 2 Treasure sales, though those may be limited due to the pandemic. “Don’t send your student to Target or IKEA,” Buckingham says. “Send them to the nearest thrift store.”

Groceries. Many students can eat more cheaply than they do in the dining hall, especially if they cook from scratch and don’t subsist on packaged meals (it may be a learning curve) or shop at Whole Foods. At Northwestern, for comparison, the open access meal plan costs $2,246 per quarter. Divide by 10 weeks and that’s $224 per week. That’s a lot of groceries for a single person. UCLA breaks down costs per meal: $9.75 for breakfast, $11.25/lunch and $12.25/dinner, also an expensive way to go.

Car. If a student lives at a distance and doesn’t have access to good public transportation, you’ll also have to consider the extra costs of a car, including parking fees, maintenance and insurance.

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