Should My College Student Live Off Campus?

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For many college parents, the moment when your college student comes to you and says that he wants to move off campus is a nervous moment.  For other college parents, the moment comes as a natural next step.  For still others, the move off campus may actually be a relief.  The decision of whether or not to live off campus rather than in a campus residence hall is a big decision, and a very individual one. 

The time when your college student decides to live off campus, whether that moment comes in the first year of college or in senior year, is another moment when you, as a parent, are confronted with, and reminded of, your student’s growing independence. You may feel that the decision is the right one for your student, or you may feel that your student is not yet ready for the increased responsibility.  Your job as a parent is to help your student think through the realities and consequences of this decision, and to ask the right questions.  Help your student explore the advantages and disadvantages of this move.

What are some of the advantages of living off campus?

  • Cost – One of the first reasons students often cite for moving off campus is to save money.  Depending on the school and the surrounding area, sharing rent with several roommates, and doing your own cooking, can cost less than room and board in a residence hall.
  • Get out of the dorm – College residence halls have their own advantages and disadvantages.  Two of the advantages may be proximity to classes and the social atmosphere.  However, that social atmosphere may also be one of the primary disadvantages to living in a dorm.  Students often find that there is little privacy and a lot of noise – and sometimes nonsense.  Your student may want to get away from the noise, distractions, partying, and constant dealing with other students.
  • Responsibility – Living in an apartment, paying rent, paying utility bills, commuting to campus, and doing his own cooking and cleaning will help your student develop responsibility. 
  • Rental history – Once your student has lived in her first apartment she will begin to develop a rental history.  This may be helpful to her when she is looking for her second apartment, perhaps after she graduates.  Of course, your student will need to be careful that her rental history is a good history.
  • Year-round housing – If your student is planning to take summer classes, work at school, or stay at college during breaks or over the summer, having an apartment will make that easier.  College residence halls often close over major college vacations, and summer housing may or may not be available if your student is not enrolled in classes.
  • Diversity – Students who live in apartments off campus often have non-student neighbors.  Your student may find himself living near working professionals, young couples, families with children, or elderly retirees.  This will give your student the opportunity to interact with, and get to know better, many different types of people.

 What are some of the disadvantages to living off campus?

  • Cost – Your student may assume that living off campus will cost less than living in the residence hall.  That may be true.  However, it is possible that the costs may be similar – or that it may cost more to live off campus.  It is important that your student have a realistic picture.  He will need to factor in not only his portion of rent, but any initial deposit, first and last month’s rent, cost of food, cost of utilities if they are not included in rent, cable, internet, furniture and appliances, laundry costs, cleaning costs, transportation to and from campus.  Be sure that your student has the entire picture before making a decision.
  • Getting out of the dorm – Your student may be looking forward to the increased privacy and quiet of an apartment.  These are important factors.  She should also consider, however, that living in a campus residence hall often makes it easier for students to stay connected to other students and to campus life.  Your student may need to work harder to stay engaged with the college once she lives off campus.
  • Responsibility – Having your own apartment comes with increased responsibility.  Your student will be responsible for a lease, for paying bills, for doing his own cooking and cleaning, and for dealing with any roommate issues without the aid of a residence assistant or residence director.
  • Year-round housing – Most apartment rentals are year-round.  If your student will not be at school in the summer, she will be responsible for paying the rent on an empty apartment or for finding someone to sublet the apartment for those months.
  • Diversity – Your student’s neighbors may or may not be other college students.  He will need to remember that non-college neighbors may be less tolerant of some “college” behaviors.  He will need to be careful about late night noise, parties, etc.
  • Roommates – Most college students cannot afford to pay the entire rent on an apartment.  This means that your student will need to find roommates to share her apartment.  She will need to make careful choices.  Often good friends do not make ideal roommates.  Once a student commits to sharing an apartment, it is difficult to make a change.  Unlike dorm roommates, who can be changed, your student will be committed to her roommates for the length of the lease.
  • Transportation – Your student will need to be able to get to and from campus.  If he has a car, he will need to consider parking – both on campus and at the apartment.  If he does not have a car, he will need to consider whether the apartment is a reasonable walking distance or whether public transportation is available.  He will also need to check about the availability of public transportation at irregular hours in case he is attending an evening event on campus.

 What should my student do now?

  • Encourage your student to make a written list of the pros and cons of off campus living – specifically for him.  Have him think carefully about the realities of his particular campus and his lifestyle.
  • Encourage your student to plan a realistic budget to compare costs.  You may need to help him think realistically about the costs of food and utilities, cable and internet.
  • Discuss finances with your student.  Will he be paying for the apartment or will you?  What happens if he can’t make a rent payment?  What happens if a roommate does not pay on time?  Will the apartment be solely in your student’s name?  Are you willing to step in and help if necessary?  Be clear about potentially troubling issues – before they arise.
  • Be prepared to start on the process early.  In the areas surrounding some college campuses, good housing is difficult to find and goes quickly.  Your student should start looking early and have documentation and payments ready so that she can move quickly if she finds something. 
  • Have someone who understands rentals look carefully at the lease.  Be sure to read between the lines before signing anything.
  • Check conditions of the rental carefully. Don’t ever let your student take a rental without seeing it.  Many student apartments are in very poor condition.  While your student may not expect luxury, he should be safe and comfortable.
  • Encourage your student to talk to other students who have made the move off campus.  He can ask about the realities of living off campus, dealing with costs, dealing with neighbors, staying involved on campus.  He can ask them about their experiences and suggestions.

Whatever your student ultimately decides about living off campus, this is another opportunity in the college experience for you to have some good conversations with your student. Talk to him about his reasoning, his goals, his frustrations and his dreams. Obviously, something which is an advantage for one student may prove an obstacle for another student.   You will get to know your student better – and hopefully appreciate his growing independence and thoughtfulness.

(Photo: lumierefl)

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