The first big decision every college-bound student needs to figure out isn’t what to major in, or what to pack to look ah-mazing—it’s where the heck to live.
Housing options for college students fall into one of three camps: You can live in a dorm, rent your own apartment, or (if your college offers this option) join a fraternity or sorority. Figuring out which is best for you can be a complicated equation involving not only what you can afford, but also which environment you’ll thrive in—academically and, yeah, socially.
Not sure whether a dorm, apartment, or Greek house is right for you? In this second installment of our College Student’s Guide to Living on Your Own, we’ll help you weigh the pros and cons of each housing option so you can make the right choice for you.
Should you live in a dorm?
Cost: According to a study by the College Board, at four-year public schools, a dorm room will cost around $10,800 a year. Dorm living at private schools is slightly more expensive, averaging $12,210 a year.
For students, aside from living at home with their parents, dorm housing is generally the cheapest option—particularly if they attend schools in expensive college towns or in cities with high real estate prices. For example, students at New York University shell out $12,646 a year for room and board. Meanwhile, a studio apartment in the same area costs an average of $2,929 a month, or $35,148 a year—about triple the cost of a dorm.
Pros: Dorms are the perfect baby step toward independent living—after all, many of your needs are taken care of. There’s also a guaranteed social life, which can be significant for newcomers to the whole college experience.
“In a dorm, all the students live in close proximity, making it easier to meet people, make friends, and forge relationships,” says Jason Patel, a former career ambassador at George Washington University and founder of college prep company Transizion.
Residential advisers often plan group activities such as ice breakers and movie nights, and the location of residence halls enables students to easily get around campus without a car.
Those living in campus housing can also cut costs by using university amenities. Most on-campus students purchase meal plans and eat in cafeterias and dining halls nearby. This means there’s no need to buy groceries—or clean a mountain of dirty dishes. In addition, dorms come fully furnished, with maintenance, internet, cable, utilities, and cleaning services provided.
Cons: Privacy is nonexistent, and space is limited. A traditional dorm room is shared with another person and is usually smaller than 130 square feet. Residents are also at the mercy of the school, adds Patel. Residential advisers, maintenance workers, and other university officials have the ability to enter your room whenever they please, and the university can set strict rules on visiting hours and curfew.
Best for: Patel recommends dorms for first-year students looking for a social atmosphere and a true taste of campus life. Many colleges require first-year students to live in dorm housing; after that first year, however, many consider moving off campus and other options (more on that next).
Should you rent an apartment off campus?
Cost: The cost of renting an apartment depends, of course, on where your college is located. Students at schools in major cities such as New York City and San Francisco may pay upward of $3,000 a month, while those in smaller metros or towns can often find a place that won’t break the bank.
“A student at the University of Iowa can split an $800 apartment with a roommate,” says Caroline Thompson, a financial writer and content manager at OppLoans, a loan company.
While apartment rent might seem cheaper than a dorm bill, don’t be fooled. Expenses that are typically covered in dorms—e.g., food, utilities, internet, cable, and furniture—can add up fast for apartment dwellers. For instance, the average off-campus student pays $2,000 to $3,000 a year for groceries, and prepare to pay big money upfront if you have to furnish your space. You’ll also have to shell out a month’s rent for your security deposit.
Furthermore, experts at Debt.org suggest you budget around $1,500 a year for transportation and an additional $1,000 to $2,000 a year for utilities, cable, and internet.
Pros: Dorm living isn’t for everyone. For those who want privacy and independence—and can handle the financial responsibilities that come with it— living in an apartment or house off campus can be a good dry run for postcollegiate life.
These reasons prompted Jordan Davis to look into renting a house off campus after his freshman year at Indiana University Bloomington. While living in a dorm was fun, he says, he was often exhausted.
“I wanted my own space,” says Davis. “I wanted to shut the door to my room and know no one was gonna barge in.”
Davis found a four-bedroom house 10 minutes from campus, which he rented for three years, until his recent graduation. He shared the house and costs with three roommates. Although they had to share bathrooms, they still had more space than in the dorms.
Cons: Ready for some real-world responsibilities? You have to shop for groceries, pay rent and utilities on time, manage your expenses, and stick to your budget. Skipping out on rent or a bill can hurt your credit score, which could jeopardize your chances of renting elsewhere.
On that note, “most college kids have little to no credit history,” notes Thompson. “This can make renting difficult.”
In such a scenario, you’ll probably need a parent, friend, or family member with good credit to co-sign the apartment for you.
If you don’t live near campus, you’ll have to pay for transportation. And if you plan to sublet your place over the summer, you’ll have to find a trustworthy tenant.
Best for: Students ready to handle the financial responsibility and reap its benefits, too. Renting an apartment can help you establish credit and a solid rental history.
Thompson adds that the responsibilities that come with renting an apartment teach students how to manage money. “They’re going to make mistakes, of course, but it’s better they’re making them at 18 than at 25,” she says.
Should you join a sorority or fraternity?
Cost: About 10% of college students join Greek life, according to the North-American Interfraternity Conference. And while there are plenty of benefits, they can come with a higher price tag than living in a dorm.
Since every school and chapter are different, housing expenses vary widely. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, fraternity members pay $3,200 to $10,000 depending on the chapter. Chapter dues, fees, and meals can rack up on average an additional $1,000 or more a year.
Pros: Those willing to cough up the extra cash to live in a sorority or fraternity can expect to live in a close-knit environment and make lifelong bonds with like-minded people.
“You’re right in the middle of social life,” Patel points out.
That’s been the case for Madison Smith, a senior at Indiana University. “I love constantly having someone to do basically everything with,” says Smith, who joined a sorority as a freshman.
Cons: Having 80 “brothers/sisters” can be a deal breaker for those who seek privacy. And let’s get real: Fraternities are notoriously noisy and unclean—especially after parties. They’re probably not the best environment for neatfreaks.
Best for: Most chapters require members to live there for a minimum of two years, so expect to dedicate at least that much time to your sorority or fraternity, Smith says. She recommends Greek housing for anyone seeking a social environment who knows how to balance work and play.