Asking for a friend: Is it better to live on or off campus?

We've got answers

Dorm room on a rainbow holographic background
(Image credit: Future/Dormify)

The four years of college are arguably the best times and most memorable times many of us will have in our lives. After all, campus life is incredibly exciting. But beyond your major, there are lots of decisions to be made — one of the biggest of which is whether or not to live in the dorms

“Like most things in the college process, when trying to decide if it’s better to live on or off campus, the answer is it depends," says founder of College, Career & Life and educational consultant Reena Gold Kamins, MA, CEP. "The answer truly comes down to individual students' budgets and personal preferences. It’s easier to get to know your peers and feel comfortable collaborating with them, if you’re spending time together outside the classroom. It’s been this way for as long as anyone can remember.”

Can’t decide where to live? Read on for more advice on how to make this incredibly important decision. 

What to expect living on campus

If you’re a freshman at college and living away from home for the first time, it’s best to live on campus. College is a huge life change, and living in dorms makes it a lot easier for a myriad of reasons. “Dorm life simplifies the adjustment to college because you don’t need to figure out a lease, furniture, utility bills, grocery bills, etc.” says high school senior life coach and founder of SunUp Coaching Carrie Rose.

At some schools, living in a dorm also means not needing a car, which can save you money not just on your auto payment, but also gas, maintenance, and insurance costs. If you’re living on campus in a major city, you might not need to pay for a car, but you will likely need to budget for public transportation and ride shares or cabs.

As a result of simplifying your needs, Rose says you can focus on your education and building relationships. You also have a built-in support system to help you through this life transition. “Most dorms have an RA (resident assistant) who can be a go-to person when adjusting to college," she says. "It’s literally their job to support students in the dorm.”

Living on campus gives you a community

College can be overwhelming for some people, but living amongst peers makes it much better. Many schools even offer additional programming for dorm dwellers. “Beyond the themed programming and pizza parties that residential staff implemented in previous generations, an increased number of schools are creating living and learning communities,” says Kamins. “For example, smaller schools like Santa Clara University have residential learning communities where students take classes in their dorm during their freshman year. And Chapman University is one school where kids are out in dorms by the college they’ve chosen, so people with similar interests are together.”

Dorm life also gives you far more opportunities to meet people, especially as a freshman. After all, everyone is new and looking to make friends. On the other hand, if you aren’t good with communal living, dorm life might not be for you. 

Living on campus may be cheaper

With the costs of housing and living being higher in major metropolitan areas, living in a dorm may be the only affordable option for some students. Still, it's possible to find a rare deal off campus. “On a recent tour of Occidental College, a tour guide mentioned that about 80% of students choose to stay on campus for all four years, but that he chose to live off-campus because it was cheaper and he liked to cook,” says Kamins.

There are additional costs of living off campus such as utility bills, food (although meal plans may not necessarily be cheaper), and buying furniture.

That doesn't mean living on campus is necessarily cheap though. “In fall of 2010, Emory’s room and board fees were just under $12,000," says the educational consultant. "In the fall of 2020, they were just over $20,000."

Why living off campus could be better

“As college goes on, I highly recommend living off campus,” says Rose. By the time you’re 20 or 21, you may not want to deal with dorm rules and restrictions. You might also want things like more privacy and you’re own bathroom. 

Living on your own will also help you better transition to the post-grad years. “Renting a condo, apartment, or house is an important life skill, and college is a great time to practice that," she says. "Your sophomore year and beyond living off campus can actually be cheaper if you find the right housing, and sometimes grocery bills are cheaper than a college meal plan."

Amanda Lauren

Hi, I’m Amanda Lauren. I’m a design expert and interior stylist who writes for Real Homes, Forbes, Real Simple among other publications. I live in Los Angeles in the historic neighborhood of Hancock Park with my husband, and two dogs, Lulu and Milo. We also have a baby coming in spring 2023. I’m a big believer in finding beautiful things at all price points. There are so many places to find affordable things, you just have to look for them. If you don't find it at first, look harder!