At Home while in School: Housing for College Students

At Home while in School: Housing for College Students

For students of all ages and in all types of programs, going to school is only one part of daily life. Whether full-time, part-time, or online, students also need a place to live while pursuing an education.

But today’s college housing looks a lot different than it used to: gone are the days where students were expected to live in a shared dorm for four years as soon as they graduated from high school. With more nontraditional students enrolling in postsecondary education, more high school seniors opting out of the traditional four-year university path, and more schools foregoing typical dormitory housing, there are more choices than ever for where students may decide to live.

Given all these possible housing choices, what should students and prospective students consider when choosing a place to live?

On-campus vs. off-campus

One of the easiest places to start is by determining whether your school offers on-campus housing options. Even if they don’t have school-run housing for students, some schools work with private organizations or landlords to provide options explicitly designed for (or even reserved for) students of the school.

If you’re considering an on-campus or school-run dorm, apartment, or house, there can be many benefits, especially in the convenience of being close to classrooms and other campus resources. You could also benefit from being able to pay for your housing (and even utilities) right along with your tuition and other class-related costs. But you’re likely to give up some independence, autonomy, or privacy with these types of options. While the school-managed housing may include private suite options, students are more likely to be assigned a roommate and to share community living spaces, kitchens, or even bathrooms. The freedom of choice for anything from décor decisions to the sharing of utility costs is much more limited.

Living off-campus, meanwhile, may mean more flexibility when it comes to choosing whether or not to have a roommate (or roommates), what type of housing you want to live in, how you furnish your space, and more. But it will also likely require some more legwork on your end. You’ll need to be ready to find a space, negotiate a lease, set up your own utilities, manage your own maintenance requests, and take on other responsibilities. Securing off-campus housing is also less likely to line up neatly with your beginning-of-term timeline, as previous tenants aren’t necessarily following your school’s academic calendar—unlike the residents of on-campus housing.

Making your move

Once you have an idea of which housing elements are most important to you—and whether your school has any sponsored options for you to consider—it’s time to explore the other important factors that could affect your final decision.


You know what they say: location, location, location. But that may not be as simple as it sounds. Many students might think that finding housing close to campus is the most important element in choosing a location to live, but that’s not necessarily true. While your commute to and from campus is certainly a valuable factor, you should also think about your other responsibilities and the rest of your usual schedule. If you’re working, if you have familial obligations, if you have other regular commitments like volunteering or kids who are in school, considering these destinations is just as important. And don’t forget typical errands: will you have a grocery store nearby? What about a library, a post office, a laundry facility, or other necessities?

Spend a little time thinking about the places you most often travel to, whether traffic—especially during peak commuting hours—may cause issues, and whether you hope to take advantage of public transportation systems in your area. Will choosing the near-campus housing you’ve had your eye on make getting to the rest of your destinations a challenge? Is there a better area of town that would make a better compromise for all your needs?


Like so many life decisions, cost is likely going to be a critical factor. While living on-campus typically means a packaged rate that includes rent and utilities (and even other amenities like laundry and fitness facilities, meals, or parking), living off-campus will require a budget for each of these line items—and maybe even more. Don’t forget to include the costs of commuting, renter’s insurance, internet access, and furniture!

After you’ve tallied up your estimated costs, it’s time to look at what income, savings, or other funds you’ll have available to pay for your cost of living. Many budget experts follow the 30% rule of thumb. That is, you shouldn’t spend more than one third of your monthly income on housing. And when it comes to having your lease application approved, landlords typically look for the same thing—and often request proof through paystubs or bank statements to ensure you can afford the rent.


If it seems like your preferred housing is going to be beyond your budget, this is a good time to consider a roommate. Some schools, even if they don’t manage their own housing program, offer a way for students to connect with each other to share off-campus housing. This can mean cutting your monthly expenses in half—or even more than that, if you choose to live with multiple roommates. One potential risk here is sharing a lease with someone you may not know very well (or at all). Find out upfront what happens if a roommate skips out on their share of the rent, moves out before the lease is up, or if other problems occur; you don’t want to be on the hook for a broken lease or back rent because of someone else’s irresponsibility.

Students should also be prepared to have their credit and their background checked. Many landlords will look for broken leases, late payments, a criminal history, or other potential red flags in your past. If you know that one of these issues applies to you, it’s best to be upfront with your potential landlord about what may have happened before and to offer assurances that you are no longer a risk.

Learn more

Do you still have questions about navigating the student housing process? The Imagine America Foundation has curated a variety of resources designed specifically for students who plan to live off-campus while they’re in school. Visit our blog at for more information and useful tips for finding a place to live, negotiating a lease, maintaining a budget, living with roommates, and other topics.

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