College has become increasingly expensive, leading many students to wonder how to save money on school.

Unsurprisingly, one of the first questions parents and rising freshmen ask is how they can save money on college, wondering if living off campus can help lower their overall tuition. Forgoing dorm life may seem like a quick fix, and many swear by it. But plenty of current students and graduates 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.

Is it better to live on campus or off campus? That depends on your situation, and you might find the answer changes over time. During your first year or if you’re a transfer student, living in the dorms could give you an easy way to meet new people. Dorms also may be closer to key campus buildings, so you’re only a few minutes’ walk from class or extracurriculars. If you live in the dorms, your room and board fees likely include access to the dining hall, which can make mealtimes simpler.

On the other hand, living off campus can help you save money. It can give you a chance to feel even more independent as you’re responsible for bills. You also may find you like the feeling of being away from campus when you’re not in class. Read on for more considerations for the on-campus vs off-campus debate.

The On-Campus Benefits

Neel Somani, an alumnus of University of California, Berkeley, is a big proponent of living on campus all four years. In his experience, living on campus can make it easier to reach your academic goals. “No matter what someone’s performance was like in high school, they’re likely to skip a few classes in college,” he says. But when you can roll from bed to seminar room in less than ten minutes, you’ll have fewer excuses to miss class.

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.”

You also may find ways to save money on campus housing. Forgoing the dorm with the higher-end amenities and choosing to live in a suite versus a single room will bring the cost down. Older students can apply to become residential advisors, which may come with a housing stipend. You may also find financial flexibility in comparing different meal plans. At some schools, you may be able to reduce or remove a meal plan while still living on campus, or pay for the dining hall with an à la carte option.

Off-Campus Benefits 

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 than campus dining.

Comparing room and board plans with local rents can be helpful. It can also be useful to build a budget, including the expenses you’ll incur living off campus, like furniture, gas, utilities, and groceries. You’ll also need to factor in the extra time and energy you may expend living off campus. For example, if you’re living off campus, you’ll have to devote time to finding an apartment, interviewing potential roommates, and commuting.

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. Plus, at some schools, it’s mandatory that residential students live on campus during their first year.

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. For many students, doing both can be the best of both worlds.

“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.”

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