Two North Central College students sitting together in their room.

How to Afford Housing in College

Jacob Imm

Apr 13, 2022

How to Afford Housing in College

Housing is part of what makes college such an important step in life, as for many students, it will be the first time you’ve ever lived on your own and had to handle all the responsibilities that come with that. 

As a college student, you shouldn’t have to worry about the idea of “I can't afford college.” In this guide, we’ll look at some of the key questions you should be asking about the price of college housing, as well as exploring solutions so you can make the choice that works best for you and your budget. 

Don’t forget to check out our other guides on the financial do’s and don'ts of college, as we examine ways to make college more affordable, steps to take if you can't afford college, and the best jobs for college students.

What's cheaper, on-campus or off-campus housing?

As with most questions about college, the answer to this question is not absolute. A lot depends on what your school charges in housing costs, the real estate market in the area of your campus, what type of financial aid or housing grant you can get, and even how you manage your own living expenses. 

Katie Taylor writes on Nitro College that raw numbers are there for you to make comparisons, but they don’t tell the whole story: “You might begin your research by looking at the cost of room and board at your college and then searching apartment ads to see whether monthly rental costs are more or less than the cost of living on campus.”

Wondering how to afford an apartment in college? It’s entirely possible you can get quite a deal on an apartment or house, especially if you are strategic about it, which will save you the money you can keep in the bank for after graduation, or have in case you need it for unexpected living expenses.

Just remember that looking at want ads, median rent numbers and average housing prices aren’t where you stop. As Taylor says, “That will provide you some useful information, but it may not give you the whole story. Your on-campus housing covers a number of things that you'll probably be responsible for if you rent your own housing.”

Kevin Towns, director of financial aid at North Central College, says the cost of college housing is “circumstantial to resources a student has (financial aid, family support, and work). But, a student has the convenience, bundled cost, and security in on-campus housing that may not be present in other housing options.”

If you live on campus, your costs will be consolidated into one large bill handled by you, your family, financial aid, a scholarship or two, etc. The cost of taking courses, fees for school materials, meals, convenience fees for using college resources, and other charges are all itemized, but you essentially pay them all at once. Separating housing out of that equation means a lot more for you to keep track of, and a landlord tends to be far less forgiving than people on campus when it comes to rent coming due.

In other words, there is more to the cost of living off campus than just money. There’s also convenience, time, and safety to think about. If you would rather be focusing on important things like studying, going to class, and yes, even your social life, it might be worth it to live on campus and endure less hassle. 

Additional living costs

There are also costs associated with living off campus that you may not realize. You can be forgiven for that; everybody has to learn what it takes to rent or buy some time, and this is your first chance. 

Writing for Student Loan Hero, Andrew Pentis reminded potential off-campus residents, “When you do the math, don’t forget to account for extras. For instance, your school’s dorms likely subsidize your electricity, internet, and other monthly bills. And most college dorms come with furniture. You (and your roommates) would be responsible for these costs if you lived off campus.”

Then there’s the issue of getting around. “You’ll also have to consider transportation expenses,” Pentis said. “Living on campus could leave you a short walk from your first morning class. Living off campus might mean you’ll need to buy a bus pass or worry about parking your car.”

Landlords and property managers also don’t really care about your schedule. Taylor writes, “The biggest expense with off-campus housing may be that you're often required to sign a 12-month lease, whether you plan on attending summer classes or not. Some landlords may allow you to sublet the apartment while you're not there, but there's no guarantee that you'll be able to find a willing candidate. Your best bet is to ensure that you have enough funding to cover the entire 12 months — and to carefully consider whether it's worth paying rent for the time you won't be in the apartment.” See what we mean about things you never even considered?

Renting property means you’ll need to pay a security deposit, which an off-campus landlord will charge you at the beginning of your lease to cover any extra costs you bring to their property. Remember that as a renter, you buy what your break. Landlords also frequently ask for both the first and last month of your lease’s rent up front, to give themselves some assurance you won’t back out of your lease. 

If you do a good job maintaining your rented home, you’ll receive the deposit back when you move out, but many are the stories of long hours spent by undergraduates trying to spackle over holes in walls or scrub out stains in floors only to never see that deposit money again. These are costs not associated with living on campus. While that’s no excuse to make a mess of your room, it is something to think about.

We’ve already mentioned food, but it’s not just that a meal plan is included or easy to access. You also have to think about the expense. If you’re living off campus, you may want to eat out a lot as it will seem easier, and the food might taste better. In most cases, however, eating out frequently is far more expensive per meal than a dining plan. If you’re going to fend for yourself with food, the smart move is to set a spending limit for eating out and make trips to the grocery store and cooking part of what you do with all that free time and space you have outside the dorms.

Find out more about North Central College

5 strategies for finding affordable off-campus housing

So let’s say you’ve crunched the numbers and you’re confident you can make it work living off campus. Here are some things you can start thinking about affording college and how to make your search for something in your price range easier:

1. Look for potential roommates – Living alone may mean more privacy and freedom, but it costs. Splitting rent between a roommate or several people opens up more possibilities in terms of the size and quality of the space you can rent. Living in a house or a space with multiple bathrooms and bedrooms in an apartment complex can offer a lot of advantages to getting a studio apartment on your own. It can also ease the burden of the upkeep of the rented property and give you more options on how to handle things like someone in the house having a strong credit score or covering security deposits and down payments.

2. Search beyond the usual places – While websites like or Zillow and Redfin will probably be the first place you go to find affordable housing, you won’t be alone, and you will have to be quick and lucky to find a good place that way. Don’t be afraid to go the extra mile by walking around the neighborhoods near campus and knocking on doors that have “For Rent” signs. Also, ask anyone you meet on campus, from faculty to staff, if they have a space to rent or know anyone who does. Starting a rental relationship by getting to know people and making an impression first is a good way to give yourself a break on things like monthly rent, lease length, and how strict your landlord will be with you.

3. Look for unique ways to make monthly rent – In many cases, landlords in college towns like giving students a break. You can potentially use that to your advantage in making informal rent arrangements. Thomas Broderick wrote in Affordable Colleges, “To obtain affordable student housing, (students) sometimes trade work for a rent reduction. This work may involve looking after pets, maintaining a lawn or garden, and performing maintenance for other tenants.” Just remember you have a career as a college student to think about–be careful not to take on so much work you don’t leave time for studying and keeping your grades up.

4. Think about campus-owned property – You can still get some of the perks of being under your school’s protective umbrella even without living in a packed dorm by living in campus-owned housing off campus. It can even be cheaper. Alexandria Williams of Edmit wrote, “Students living in the residence halls are usually required to pay for their housing in one lump sum for the semester or quarter, which requires thousands of dollars upfront. However, many campus-owned apartments permit students to pay monthly and still enjoy the benefits of living on campus, including an all-inclusive rental fee.” It’s important to keep in mind that some colleges and universities only offer campus-owned housing to graduate students or married students with or without children, so be sure to check whether your school is one of them. Also, bear in mind that living under your college’s roof means living under their rules–even though you’re off campus, you may have to follow a curfew, and you may not be allowed, overnight guests.

5. Work your budget from both directions – Always remember that finding a great place to live only matters if you can afford it. Set a price for what you can pay in rent and only change it if you can come up with a smart way to save elsewhere. One example you can work on before you get to college is to apply for a Federal Pell Grant or start a 529 plan. Williams wrote, “A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged investment account. You deposit after-tax dollars into the account, and earnings accrue tax-free. When you need the money for college expenses, you can use it for a variety of qualified higher education expenses, including room and board.” Sarah Lindberg of Nitro College warned, however, “You can pay for off-campus housing with a 529 plan — but there are limits. Make sure your parents only withdraw the cost of rent that the college included in your financial aid award letter. Anything above that may not be considered a qualified education expense.” 

Finding a solution

The best way to find a solution to any college issue, whether it is housing-related or not, is to start on the right foot and find a great school that will support you every step of the way. Look for a place like North Central College. North Central’s Office of Residence Life is there to answer any and all questions about campus housing and help you make the right decisions for you on where to live. Find out more on North Central’s Campus Living web page

Jacob Imm is the assistant director of communications in the North Central College Office of Marketing and Communications. He has 12 years of collegiate communications experience and has worked with hundreds of college students. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Notre Dame and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.