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Room-and-board options

Grandparents & other sponsors

Room-and-board options

When your child begins college, it is often their first time living outside of your home and supervision. While you may anguish at first over the loss of daily interaction, your concern is likely to shift to ensuring that he or she lives in a safe and comfortable home that creates the right environment to learn. Primary options for room and board in college include:

  • Living at home. Living at home is an economical way to pay room and board for at least a part of your child's college education, particularly if they plan to attend a community college. Hundreds of thousands of frugal students obtain as many credits as possible at a local community college before transferring to a public school as a legally domiciled resident.

  • On-campus housing. On-campus housing used to consist of a single, simple option -- the residence hall, or student dormitory. It wasn't too long ago that a luxuriant dorm room consisted of wall-to-wall carpeting and central air conditioning.

  • Today, campus housing options are greater. In a quest to lure and retain students, colleges and universities spend millions of dollars to build town home-style campus housing. These living facilities -- generally the most expensive housing options -- are replete with Internet connection, cable TV, security gates, workout gyms, and covered parking.

    For parents and students unwilling or unable to pay top-dollar for this kind of campus housing, the student dormitory remains a reliable candidate for campus housing. Colleges and universities have renovated many of their dorms to upgrade basic amenities, including cable access. It's often hard to beat a primary feature of dorm housing -- proximity to classrooms and dining halls. This proximity often makes owning a car unnecessary for dorm residents.

    Some schools require that new students live on campus and go without a car for a certain period. Another requirement of many campus-housing programs is participation in a meal plan. Meal plans come in many varieties and often provide great value.

    Demand for campus housing often exceeds the supply of dorm rooms. As a result, many schools use a lottery system to assign dorm rooms. Some schools aim to accommodate students from far-flung corners of the state, region, or country. At other schools, preference is given to a certain year of students, whether freshmen or juniors and seniors. As part of a campus visit, you will want to stop in at the school's student housing office to explore on- and off-campus options and costs.

    According to Trends in College Pricing 2020, published by the College Board, room and board costs at private schools average $13,120 for the 2020-21 school year, up 1.0% from the previous year. For public schools, the average cost for room and board rose 0.9% to $11,620 for the 2020-21 school year.

  • Student apartments. While a mandatory year of dorm life or limits on freshmen owning a car may be the well-intended objectives of campus housing programs, some students (and their parents) chafe at such restrictions.

  • An alternative to living on campus is living off campus. A first alternative may be to live in an apartment complex or cluster of homes that rents primarily to student-tenants. These student apartments are often adjacent or close to campus, perhaps within a short biking distance.

    Living off campus gives students more flexibility in how much to spend on rent and whether to participate in a meal plan. They can elect to split utilities and other expenses with a sibling or other roommate. Of course, transportation needs mount once a student moves off campus.

    A downside of student apartment living, however, is often the lack or absence of supervision that ultimately leads a few boisterous and unruly students making more nuisance than dorm resident managers are willing to tolerate.

  • Housing in the broader community. A second alternative to off-campus housing is living in the broader community. Of course, living beyond the one or two concentric rings that tend to surround a college campus puts a whole other perspective on student life. It's less likely that bar-closing times will interfere with sleep or study like it sometimes plagues those living in student apartments close to campus. Students who live in the broader community, away from campus, often enjoy more peace and quiet. However, they also tend to face higher transportation costs.
If you attend a public university as a domiciled resident of that state, you will avoid thousands of extra dollars a year in out-of-state tuition. Public universities receive revenues, in part, from their state treasuries and often have a mission of educating resident students. To pay for the cost of educating students from other states, they routinely charge out-of-state tuition.

Some states participate in regional programs that accept students from other states in the region at a discount to the full cost of paying out-of-state tuition. These programs include the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) and New England's Regional Student Program.

For purposes of financial aid and saving with such tax-advantaged vehicles as a Section 529 plan or education savings account, room and board expenses are usually considered a qualified higher education expense. As a result, these expenses can be paid with the proceeds of student loans or proceeds from these tax-advantaged accounts. An exception may be certain prepaid tuition plans. While these plans are often lumped into Section 529 plans with college savings plans, their funds are often earmarked for tuition-only purposes. You may wish to check with the administrator of a state's prepaid tuition plans.

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