Paying For College: Dorm Life Vs Renting An Apartment

Many incoming college students must decide whether to live in a dorm or rent an apartment off-campus.

One of the most essential decisions to make when starting college is finding suitable housing. Some colleges require incoming freshmen to spend an established amount of time in on-campus dormitories, while others allow students to decide between on-campus and off-campus housing. Both options have their pros and cons, so students may have to consider their own particular needs before signing a lease or applying for student housing. Some students find that dorm life is exciting and nurturing, while others find the pace too frenetic and prefer the relative privacy of an apartment. Here are some pros and cons to consider before deciding to sign a lease or take a room assignment at a dorm.

1. Rent. Most student housing is considered part of the overall financial needs package, which means the cost of a dorm room may be covered by financial aid and/or student loans. Certain scholarships may even REQUIRE a recipient to stay in on-campus housing, which takes the guesswork out of the equation. Student housing coordinators may require some out-of-pocket deposits, but the dorm room itself is generally 'rented' by the entire term length, not by the month. If finances are tight and dormitory life seems satisfactory, then applying for student housing may make the most sense financially. There are no separate utility payments to make or leases to sign. As long as financial aid is available, the cost of a dorm room should remain steady and affordable.

An off-campus apartment is not generally covered by financial aid. A student may have enough funds available after tuition to afford a room or apartment, but the school is under no obligation to subsidize off-campus housing. This means a student must have enough money to cover first and last month's rent, security deposit and utility payments. Rent is due on a monthly basis, which may be problematic if financial aid funds are not disbursed until late in the term. Working students may find that the upfront expenses of an apartment are still preferable to the loss of privacy experienced in dormitories. Roommates may help alleviate many of these expenses, as well as supply some companionship.

2. Food. Students living in dorms may also be encouraged to participate in a school-sponsored food program. These meal plans are also included in the financial aid package, which means a student will always have access to a nutritious meal throughout the entire term. Dorm residents may also decide to visit outside restaurants as a group, which means developing a true sense of community. Roommates in a dorm could split the expense of food for the refrigerator, or the cost of a pizza or other convenience food. Dorm residents are rarely far from someone else's leftovers or a snack machine. One con with dorm life is strict control over cooking options. Many dorms forbid the use of hot plates or other heating methods. Microwaves may be allowed, but it may be difficult to budget for food if meals cannot be cooked. The food plan may only apply to selected meals, and eating out all the time may drain a student's food budget quickly.

Virtually every apartment is equipped with a standard refrigerator and a working kitchen. Students can save money by shopping frugally and storing their food in a larger freezer and pantry.

There are no restrictions on food preparation methods, so an apartment-dweller could fix a large meal for visitors and still enjoy leftovers. Students living off-campus do not have to plan their meal times around a cafeteria's hours of operation. However, students who depend on financial aid disbursements for living expenses may not have money for food for a few weeks. They must either sign up for a food plan or have enough money in reserve to survive until checks are processed. One solution is to seek employment in a local restaurant in order to afford discounted meals. Roommates may or may not feel generous where food is concerned, and grocery runs may be few and far between.

3. Entertainment. Students who live on-campus are usually surrounded by all types of school-sponsored entertainment. Living in a dorm often puts a student right in the middle of campus action- theater productions, musical events, sporting events and art exhibits. Living in close quarters with other students can lead to interesting alliances. Athletes can easily find other athletes, artists can collaborate with other artists, and those looking for off-campus entertainment can find others with similar tastes.

Dorms are excellent places to find others who share common interests and would be interested in attending conventions or shows. Some dorms provide special events for different days of the week, which can mean cheap entertainment and a chance to meet other dorm residents. Dorm students can use their discretionary funds for entertainment instead of utility bills and transportation expenses.

Apartment dwellers may have to commute to on-campus events, which can mean higher transportation expenses. Finding excess money for entertainment may be difficult after rent and utility bills are paid, so off-campus living is probably better suited for those who do not seek daily entertainment. Apartment dwellers are not bound by curfews, however, so they are free to spend more time pursuing outside interests. Dorm students must adhere to rules concerning conduct and dating- restrictions not faced by those in off-campus housing. Those who live off-campus may feel 'out of the loop' when it comes to on-campus activities, but they can still enjoy the same student discounts and benefits.

4. Privacy and study habits. Dormitories are notorious for their lack of privacy. Residents may live four or more to a room, and individual space is always at a premium. A student living on-campus may expect a functional bed (bunk or otherwise) and a personal desk. Showers may be communal- a situation which makes many young people feel uncomfortable. Dorm life can result in a constant atmosphere of exposure- very few personal matters remain secret for long. Your best friend and worst enemy in a dorm may only live 10 feet apart. There are few unguarded places in which to live and study in private in dormitories. Students may have to spend their spare time in other school buildings in order to escape the frenetic atmosphere of a dorm. Dorm residents do have the advantage of being close to fellow classmates, however, and study groups can easily be formed within dorm walls. Dorm life may be best for people who have strong personalities and are comfortable in crowded social situations.

Apartment dwellers have a lot of privacy, which may be a pro or con. Those who study best in private and want to avoid the social politics of a dorm would probably appreciate this aspect. Others who thrive in a more social atmosphere may find apartment living less exciting by comparison.

Roommates may have completely different work/school schedules and neighbors may not be interested in socializing. Students with their own apartments may also find themselves acting as hosts for dorm-dwelling friends eager to escape restrictions. Financial danger arises if visitors damage the property or cause neighbors to file complaints.

5. Financial future. Schools may decide to raise tuition and other expenses, including the price of housing. These price hikes may put a crimp on a student's overall financial aid package, but on-campus housing should still be affordable. The real problem with dorm living is planning for the future. Few students voluntarily remain in dorms for their entire college career, although there are dorms for upper classmen, graduate students and married couples on many campuses. As students grow older, their need for privacy and self-rule grow as well. Dorm residents may have to plan for the added expenses of an apartment or a boarding house. They must also plan for times when the dorms are closed, which could mean spending money on temporary housing or moving back home. Dorms are opened and closed at the discretion of the school administrators, so dorm residents are encouraged to bring as little as possible.

Apartment dwellers may have to deal with rent increases and disappearing roommates. An apartment that was easily affordable with four occupants may not be such a bargain with only two roommates. Sometimes roommates will leave without notice, leaving behind unpaid bills and damage. Finding a new roommate to share the extra expenses may be problematic, especially if the lease is almost up. Some landlords will not allow subleasing, so a renter may find him or herself responsible for rent on an apartment and no one left to share expenses. Moving into on-campus housing may be a viable solution, but it could depend on availability. Meanwhile, the rent will continue to be due on an apartment you can't afford on your own. The best thing for renters to do is get everything in writing from roommates and only rent apartments which allow for financial emergencies such as subleasing and flexible leases.

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