Your child may be gung-ho about experiencing all there is to soak up about residential living during his or her first year at college.

On the other hand, your kid may refuse to set foot in a dorm. Maybe she doesn’t like the idea of sharing a bathroom with 30 other girls. Maybe dorm life just doesn’t appeal. 

For whatever reason, let’s dig into this all-important question: Will your child get extra financial aid if he or she lives off campus

In short — no. However, it’s important to know that off-campus living doesn’t affect your financial aid eligibility. 

In fact, I think Notre Dame’s website sums it up nicely. It says: 

Living on campus does not affect a student’s financial aid eligibility. A standard room and meals amount is used to determine undergraduate students’ cost of attendance whether they live on or off campus.

— Notre Dame’s website

Generally, this is the case at most schools, but it’s always best to check with every school your student’s interested in. Here’s what you need to know.

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Why Live Off Campus?

First of all, why do students choose to live off campus? There are a variety of reasons, and sometimes it’s not always a decision your child will make freely. Universities often don’t have enough room for all students to live on campus.

But here again, all colleges have different policies. It’s best to ask. For example, the college I worked for required all students to live on campus. In fact, you needed to petition the residence life office staff in order to live off campus — and that reward was granted just to a select few. 

Why’d they do that? Well, I worked at a small liberal arts college. The requirement was put into place to make sure that the college built a sense of community. If even half of the students lived off campus, the college would be a ghost town. I was actually super grateful for that requirement because small campuses need that community feel. (It’s definitely a very different story at a large state university.)

The point of telling you this is to check into a college and university’s policies very carefully when you go on visits. If your child isn’t sure he likes the college’s policies regarding residence life, he’d better steer clear of attending that college altogether. 

So, why do some students choose to live off campus? Here are a few reasons:

  • Potentially less expensive
  • More space 
  • Less noisy than a buzzing residence hall
  • Potential garage parking — it’s way easier to live off campus with a car
  • No residential advisors (RAs) and fewer rules (including curfews)
  • Increased privacy (no communal bathrooms!)
  • Easier with work and other social commitments
  • Roommate choice is more targeted

On the other hand, here are some reasons your child may prefer to live on campus:

  • Potentially less expensive
  • Offers a more social atmosphere and a gateway to the campus community
  • Fewer responsibilities (paying utilities, making rent payments, etc.)
  • Easier access to the cafeteria and broader food choices
  • Easy access to campus resources like the library, student center, gym, etc.
  • No need to drive to campus or take public transportation
  • Your child is more likely to complete a degree — that one is HUGE!
  • Services like internet, water, sewer, waste removal, etc. are already built in
  • Opportunities to participate in residence hall association
  • Laundry facilities are available

As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when you and your child are thinking through the benefits of each. Notice that the first item on each list is “potentially less expensive” — it might be cheaper to live on campus or off campus. 

While that might sound confusing, you just have to run the numbers. Rent will naturally be cheaper in Omaha, Nebraska, compared to Cambridge, Massachusetts. We’ll dive into the numbers a little later in this post. I’ve also created a handy budgeting spreadsheet to help you and your student figure out which option is cheapest.

Note: This entire article tackles financial aid for off-campus housing by paying rent for an apartment, house or townhouse. It’s obviously going to be cheaper if your student lives at home with you and doesn’t plan to pay rent while going to school.

How Financial Aid Works with Room and Board

Your child won’t get extra financial aid by living off campus, so how does the money get distributed? It all starts with a college or university’s Cost of Attendance, or COA.

How Colleges and Universities Calculate Cost of Attendance

The COA is an approximate calculation of your child’s complete expenses. It includes items like tuition, room, board, fees, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees and other miscellaneous expenses. The COA helps determine the maximum amount of total grants and loans your student can receive. In short, financial aid offices use the COA to determine your child’s eligibility for financial aid. The COA may also include other things — disability costs, study abroad program costs and more. 

You may even want to alert the college your student is considering if you have any unusual expenses that might affect your cost of attendance.

The COA works with another factor — your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — to determine how much financial aid your child will get. In fact, it’s an easy subtraction problem. Colleges and universities subtract your EFC from the school’s COA (I know, all the acronyms)! 

What’s an EFC? It’s the government’s estimate of what you and your child may be able to pay for a year of college. It’s based on your income, assets, age, number of dependents and more. The difference between the cost of attendance and the EFC is how much financial aid must make up the difference.

When you fill out the FAFSA for your child, you’ll need to indicate whether your child plans to live on campus or not. 

So, let’s apply all this to an example. A student named Rachel plans to attend College A in the fall. She and her mom filled out the FAFSA together and found out that her Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is $12,000. College A’s Cost of Attendance (COA) is $52,000 — again, this includes tuition, room, board and fees. The difference, $52,000 – $12,000, equals $40,000 — and within that figure is room and board. Financial aid calculations will be different for students who live in off-campus housing and $40,000 must be made up through financial aid.

Which is More Expensive — Living On or Off Campus?

Is off-campus housing always less expensive than on-campus housing? (I’ve heard so many college kids say that.) 

The truth is that Trulia’s 2018 Market Trends Campus Report said that in 28 of 48 colleges and universities it surveyed, it was either the same price or cheaper to be off campus, with average savings of $219 per month for those with a roommate. Meals were included in the housing options for 8 of these 28 colleges and universities, which added to the expense. Removing these schools from consideration brought the average monthly savings in off-campus housing down to $146.

I did some more digging to find the actual cost of living on campus compared to living off campus:

Average cost of room and board, according to Debt.org:

  • $8,887 per school year at public colleges and universities
  • $10,089 per school year at private colleges and universities

Average apartment expenses, according to Debt.org:

  • $1,178 per month for a two-bedroom apartment
  • $112 per month for the electric bill
  • $50 per month for internet
  • Total: $16,080, assuming your child doesn’t have a roommate

So, here’s what I can tell you for sure, because there are so many variables: At first glance, an off-campus apartment may look way cheaper than the price of room and board, but you have to add in costs for electricity, gas, water, waste disposal, cable and internet — it all adds up fast.

In fact, there might even be hidden surprises you’re not thinking of as a parent. (You may own your own home now — it’s easy to forget about things like lease deposits!) Here are some often-forgotten extra expenses I came up with: 

  • Don’t forget about summertime rent! Remember, leases are typically year-round, not just the nine months your child is in school. That can add more to the bill.
  • Your child will need to pay for transportation. Whether that means paying for car insurance, the subway, the bus system — whatever it is! — it adds to the expense.
  • Utilities are part of the package. Don’t forget about electric, gas, internet, cable, water and trash. This can add considerably to the expense.
  • A deposit is also part of the deal. The drawback to having to pay a deposit is that you have to pay it in the first place — and can lose it if your apartment is in a shambles when your lease is up. 
  • Roommates might not work out. What happens when one roommate decides to bail out and your child can’t find a replacement? The rent still needs to be paid each month!

Figure Out Whether Your Child Really Should Live Off Campus

Living off campus is much closer to a real-world experience. Rent is due and the lights will extinguish if the electric bill isn’t paid. Is your child ready for these types of responsibilities or is he better off in the relative comfort of dorm life? If you know for sure that your child will subsist on Easy Mac and needs an RA to help handle roommate squabbles, it might be better to stick to residence hall living. 

On the surface, it might look like living on campus versus off campus is solely a money decision, but consider where your child would thrive most. If your son thinks of himself as a gourmet chef, he may hate eating the on-campus food and text you green-faced emojis daily. (That alone will probably tell you whether he or she is ready to live off campus.)

Don’t forget that there are ways to reduce the on-campus costs if you really want to. Your student may want to expand her leadership skills and get plugged into a resident advisor (RA) position. Here’s a major perk: RAs usually get free room and sometimes free board! Now, it’s true that your student may find that RA jobs are only reserved for juniors and seniors. However, your son or daughter might be the token sophomore that gets chosen! (I’ve seen it happen lots of times.) Your child will need to prove good grades and extracurricular involvement and will likely also have to go through a rigorous interview process. 

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Determine a Budget

You may want to talk your child through a budget prior to the start of college whether he or she decides to live off campus. In fact, to save you a little bit of time, I developed a budget worksheet for you and your child. You can copy this worksheet and adapt it to your needs. It’ll tally up all the costs for you automatically. It’s nothing fancy — maybe someday I’ll get a chance to make it really pretty! 

Compare your student’s total expenses with his or her total income. Your child’s income should be greater than his or her expenses. If this isn’t the case, try to help your child reduce expenses and/or work to increase his or her income. This may show you clearly whether it’s cheaper to live on campus or off campus. Explore these options on every visit and while you build relationships with admission counselors and financial aid personnel at various schools.

Think of the Whole Picture

No, you don’t get extra financial aid for off-campus housing — even if it’s more expensive than living on campus. So, the moral of the story may be this: Don’t make cost the only factor when you and your child decide whether living off campus is a priority. There are lots of other things to consider — including your child’s sense of responsibility.

Here’s something else to consider: 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 your student is allowed to use the money.

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