When you’re taking a look at the full costs of college, room and board happens to be part of the cost of attendance. But what is room and board, exactly? What does room and board include in college? How does it fit into the overall costs?
These are great questions. Taking care of college costs may be one of the most expensive (and one of the most important!) experiences you’ve ever paid for, and in this situation, you may feel as if you have to take an X-Acto knife to your budget to pare as much as possible from it to make room and board payments.
In this article, we’ll dive right into room and board meaning as well as answer the question, “What does room and board include in college?” We’ll also cover how to learn the cost of room and board, whether you have to pay room and board (and how to pay for it!). We’ll also walk through steps to make it less expensive.
- What is Room and Board?
- “Room” Definition
- “Board” Definition
- How Do You Learn the Cost of Room and Board?
- Do You Have to Pay Room and Board?
- How to Pay for Room and Board
- Step 1: Understand the financial aid award.
- Step 2: Apply financial aid toward room and board.
- Step 3: Consider other options.
- Step 4: Pay the bill for room and board.
- Is it Less Expensive to Live On or Off Campus?
- How to Make Room and Board Less Expensive
- It’s Possible to Save Money on Room and Board
- Do college scholarships pay for room and board?
- Does room and board count as tuition?
What is Room and Board?
Room and board: Quite simply, it refers to the roof over a student’s head (room) in the residence hall and the food a student eats at college (board). Besides that, what are the fringe benefits? What is included in room and board?
As you might imagine after taking visits to colleges, your child will encounter a wide variety of types of residence halls or “dorm living” — large rooms, small rooms, residence halls for solely first-year students, others that are more apartment-style living. Some schools have required residential living on campus.
College rooms typically come furnished with beds, desks, chairs, bookshelves, dressers and closets, not to mention lounge spaces, restrooms, electricity, heat, and internet access. You may have to pay more for fancier on-campus digs, which might include flashier apartment-style living and amenities like fitness centers.
Check the differences between costs of various housing options on campus. The admission office or financial aid office should be able to help you and your child iron out those specific costs.
What is the “board” in room and board?
“Board” refers to a meal plan, or a pre-set number of meals you can purchase prior to the start of an academic semester in college. Colleges also have a wide variety of meal plan options that are preloaded on an ID card. Many meal plans at many colleges offer meals for seven days. For example, a student might choose from a 13-meal plan, where they get 13 meals throughout the week, or a 20-meal plan, where they get 20 meals throughout the week. This is typically called a standard/basic meal plan.
However, students may be able to choose from a much smaller meal plan, such as seven meals per week. Note that some schools do not allow students to opt out of the meal plan, particularly if schools have a residential requirement.
Some schools even offer unlimited meals, but most function as a per meal/swipe limit or a point plan.
- Per meal/swipe plan: The per meal/swipe plan allows your child to swipe every time to use up their allotment. For example, your may use a “swipe” for a granola bar or a huge buffet meal — they would “give up” that swipe, no matter how little or how much they eat.
- Point plan: Purchasing meal points means that you purchase a certain number of points ahead of time and points get deducted from the “collection of points.” For example, if your child eats that granola bar for lunch, it would “cost” them fewer points than the big buffet meal.
How Do You Learn the Cost of Room and Board?
Most schools list room and board right on their websites, so you don’t have to guess where the “room and board” comes in among the other costs. It is embedded in the cost of attendance at most schools.
Schools typically list the tuition, required fees and other parts of a financial aid award very clearly and in order on their websites. Some people call this the “cost of attendance” (COA), which also includes room and board. In addition to room and board, COA estimates other educational expenses such as:
- Tuition and fees
- Personal expenses
Learn more: 6 Ways to Handle a Disappointing Financial Aid Award
Do You Have to Pay Room and Board?
Yes, you have to pay for room and board. Naturally, the total cost of room and board depends on the type of campus housing and the food plan your child chooses. The cost of living on campus, according to the most recent data (for 2020 to 2021) from the National Center for Education Statistics, was $6,897 for all institutions. On average, the board for colleges cost $5,335 for all institutions during the same timeframe.
How do you find out your COA? You can find out the total cost of attendance on the school’s website. However, you can drill in deeper and use a net price calculator, which gives you a more accurate cost of the college aligned with what it will cost your child based on your personal financial situation. You can find a net price calculator on every college and university website — it’s required by law.
How to Pay for Room and Board
Let’s take a quick look at how to pay for room and board from the standpoint of truly understanding your child’s financial aid award. We’ll also help you get an idea of the different types of financial aid opportunities available to your child, including scholarships, grants, loans and work-study.
Step 1: Understand the financial aid award.
One of the most important things you can do: Understand the financial aid award from top to bottom. It’s important to have a firm grasp on how much a particular school will cost.
Sometimes, various types of aid get lumped together. For example, it might look like your child has received a huge financial aid award, but when you peel back each layer, you may realize that a few of those “awards” are actually loans. Some schools also work-study as part of the award calculation. I’m really not a fan of this tactic because it looks like you get a guaranteed lump sum of money, but that’s not true — your child must earn work-study money by working a job on campus.
In addition to that, some financial aid awards do not include the total cost. When financial aid awards don’t publish the total cost right on the financial aid package, you might have to do a little digging. Look carefully at a school’s costs page online, or better yet, call, to be absolutely sure that you’re considering all costs, such as lab, orientation, athletics, campus, transportation fees, etc. You may not find out about these “nasty” surprises till later.
It’s also a good idea to consider the fees and interest rates for loans. Use an interest rate calculator to get a sense of how much it will cost you for sure. Finally, remember that colleges also implement tuition increases each year but scholarships don’t always increase as tuition increases.
Ultimately, it’s important to really understand the full figure and what to expect.
Step 2: Apply financial aid toward room and board.
How does financial aid award actually work? You get a round COA, then apply individual situations to it. Specifically, this means that you apply scholarships, grants, work-study and loans to it. Therefore:
Cost of attendance (COA) – Financial aid = Your final costs
Filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will get you started in the right direction. This means that your child will be considered for federal student loans, federal work-study and federal grants. I encourage every family to file the FAFSA no matter what, because you may be able to chip away at the costs using federal aid. Items such as work-study will not go on your child’s financial aid award if you don’t file the FAFSA. You must file the FAFSA in order to qualify.
Read more about how to get college paid for.
- Consider housing assistance grants. Some states offer housing expense grants for students, and it’s important to recognize that grants do not need to be repaid. Funding can depend on your state and your child’s school. Housing grants may require an application, including filing the FAFSA. Check with the financial aid office at schools, state department of higher education or more.
- Search for scholarships (including throughout college). Your child does not need to pay scholarships back (just like grants), but they can help cover the cost of room and board. Students can find scholarships through a wide variety of means, including through a college or university, through your local community (through clubs, organizations, religious groups, etc.) Need-based and merit-based scholarships can help you pay for room and board. Your child can also apply for scholarships throughout those college years — they’re not limited to just scholarships they get during their senior year of high school.
- Consider loans: Loans can help your child pay for college. Federal student loans give your child the best bang for their buck because they have the lowest interest rates and give them opportunities for forgiveness as well as other flexible repayment options such as income-driven repayment. Here are a few types of federal student loans you may need to be aware of:
- Direct Subsidized loans: The government pays the fixed interest rate (which means the interest rate doesn’t change) on need-based Direct Subsidized loans when your undergraduate child stays enrolled in college at least part time. Your child will also receive a grace period before they need to repay their loans after graduation.
- Direct Unsubsidized loans: The government does not pay the fixed interest rate on non-need-based Direct Unsubsidized loans, unlike in the case of Direct Subsidized loans. Unsubsidized loans go to undergraduate and graduate students.
- Direct PLUS loans: As a parent, you can take out a PLUS loan to pay for education costs when you need to pay for “the rest” of college costs. Graduate students can also take out PLUS loans for graduate school. However, you must have a decent credit score in order to qualify.
- Private student loans: If your child still needs more money to pay for college, they can tap into private student loans. They can have fixed or variable interest rates and various loan terms (which refers to the length of the payback period) but these rates may be higher than federal student loans. Your student also cannot access privileges related to forgiveness or other types of income-driven repayment plans with private loans.
Step 3: Consider other options.
It’s possible to think outside the box here. In many situations, your child doesn’t have to live on campus. If you and your child pencil out the costs and you find out that it’s cheaper to live off campus, it might actually be a good idea to approach an off-campus living situation.
Your child may also want to look into becoming a resident advisor (RA) in their second year of college. An RA is the leader of a portion of a residence hall, which means that they might mentor a handful of first-year students and help them get used to residence hall living. They might play games with them, organize on-campus group meals and oversee the behavior of residents on that floor. RAs typically receive free or discounted room and board. The amount of the discount varies from school to school.
In many cases, student RAs must maintain a certain GPA and continue to make academic progress throughout any given semester.
Step 4: Pay the bill for room and board.
Finally, the last step involves paying the final bill for room and board. Most colleges send the first semester tuition bill prior to the start of the academic year, like in July. You may also consider opting for a monthly payment plan, which divides up the months of the year that your child will attend school or spreads them out over the course of 10 or 11 months.
Make sure the school’s financial aid award captures the correct scholarships and other aid (particularly outside scholarships) before you pay the bill.
Is it Less Expensive to Live On or Off Campus?
At first glance, the cost of living off-campus may seem cheaper than room and board, but by the time you add up the additional costs, such as furniture you have to purchase, utilities, and purchasing your own groceries, you may get close to the cost of paying for room and board.
Iron out all the expenses between both with your child. It’s your child’s first foray into adulthood and it’s important to remember that some kids need the residence hall environment for a few years — some students are not yet ready for apartment living.
How to Make Room and Board Less Expensive
You likely have a little bit less maneuverability when saving on room and board in a residence hall because there aren’t dozens of ways to cut back. Your child’s only options may involve choosing a less expensive meal plan (which likely involves fewer meals) or a lower-cost dorm room.
However, there are quite a few ways your child can reduce expenses if they choose to live off campus:
- Put together a budget to monitor daily expenses.
- Get a roommate to share expenses.
- Choose lower-cost groceries or clip coupons and limit going out to eat.
- Cancel cable and opt for lower entertainment costs.
- Save on utilities (wear a sweater instead of turning up the heat) and turn out the lights.
- Choose a lower-cost apartment with fewer amenities.
- Shop for cheaper internet.
- Use public transportation.
- Limit use of credit cards.
- Brew coffee at home.
Encourage your child to get creative about saving money — college students are notoriously creative.
It’s Possible to Save Money on Room and Board
You can save money on room and board. It’s a good idea to compare costs by considering the answer to “What are room and board expenses?” and comparing on- and off-campus options side by side.
Furthermore, encourage your child to get as many scholarships and grants as possible, money that they don’t have to pay back.
Do college scholarships pay for room and board?
Yes, college scholarships pay for room and board. When you get a financial aid award, most money gets applied toward both tuition, room, board and fees, with the exception of certain scholarships such as full-tuition scholarships, which only apply to tuition.
Does room and board count as tuition?
Room and board is not the same as tuition. Tuition refers to the costs you pay for classes. Tuition varies from college to college, just as room and board varies from school to school. These costs can vary widely. For example, a liberal arts college may cost far more for tuition, room, board and fees than a community college.