It’s no news that college poses a financial burden for many Americans.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first questions parents and rising freshmen ask is how they can save money. Forgoing dorm life may seem like a quick fix, and indeed many swear by it. But plenty of current students and grads say it’s a shortsighted one. While financial aid and student loans can help cover the cost of housing in college, it’s important to keep other factors in mind when deciding whether to live on campus.

The On-Campus Benefits

Neel Somani, an alumnus of University of California, Berkeley, is a big proponent of living on campus all four years. He believes that it’s easier to get good grades when you live closer to the classroom. “No matter what someone’s performance was like in high school, they’re likely to skip a few classes in college,” he says. To minimize this? “It’s best to live on campus.”

Lyn Alden, founder of Lyn Alden Investment Strategy, agrees. She spent two years as a resident assistant on campus and believes campus living makes for an easier college adjustment. “Residence halls generally have older students and full-time coordinators or administrators dedicated to helping freshmen adapt to campus life,” she says. “They hold events to help students socialize and meet new friends, and have some degree of training to look out for warning signs that a student is struggling.”

“Off-campus living saved us $10,000 a year, partially because when you live on campus, you’re forced to have a set meal plan that costs about $2,000.”

Sarah Dale, Virginia Commonwealth University

Off-Campus Cost-Savings

But living in a dorm isn’t for everyone. Sarah Dale, who attended Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), found the experience impersonal. She traded in a shared dorm for an off-campus apartment. When she and her mom tallied up the math, they were elated. “Off-campus living saved us $10,000 a year, partially because when you live on campus [at VCU], you’re forced to have a set meal plan that costs about $2,000,” she says. For her, off campus life has been “healthier and cheaper.” Costs will vary based on school and meal plan, but it is often the case that there are less expensive ways to feed yourself that campus dining. 

Different Options for Different Years

Craig E. Ullom, a former student affairs administrator and educator who has worked at the University of Georgia, the University of Miami and other schools, believes that living off campus is a practical solution for upperclassmen, but not for freshmen or sophomores. “Students living on campus in their first year tend to perform better academically and return to continue their education,” he says. Ullom actually believes that dorm living should be mandatory for all first-year students so they can build connections with classmates.

“Focus the first two years transitioning socially and academically to the college experience. Then move off campus with people you know.”

Craig Ullom, University of Georgia

After sophomore year, though, he thinks students can draw more valuable experience by living on their own. Living off campus later in their college careers “fosters greater independence and will help prepare the student for life after graduation,” he adds. So Ullom suggests splitting your college experience between dorm and off-campus living.

“Focus the first two years transitioning socially and academically to the college experience. Then move off campus with people you know in places you feel comfortable with to live the college lifestyle you want to create,” he advises.

And the hefty price tag that comes with dorm living? “Consider [it] as an investment in learning,” says Ullom. “You are paying for a convenient holistic immersion experience in a community that most will never experience again in their life.”

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2017.