Affordable Student Housing

Table of Contents: Affordable Student Housing
1. Renting Off Campus
2. Resources for Finding Rental Housing
3. How to Pay for Off-Campus Housing
4. Student Housing Cooperatives
5. 7 Tips for Avoiding Bad Living Situations

Off-Campus Options for Students Ditching the Dorms

Every college student wants the most affordable housing possible. For some, this means finding a school with low-cost options on campus. For others, it means either living with your parents or cramming six people into a three-bedroom apartment with a closet bathroom and a laundry room/kitchen. Luckily, an increasing number of alternatives exist for students in search of cheaper living arrangements. This guide shows college students where to find affordable off-campus living, and introduces some of today’s new and somewhat unconventional ways to save, including housing co-ops and, yes, even senior centers.

Renting Off Campus

More students are living off-campus than ever before. Michael Burns, Director of Housing and Residence Life at Oklahoma University, says, “For many students, college is the first time away from their families, the first time for independence. Living off campus is an attractive option to explore that independence.” But living off campus doesn’t look the same for every college student. There are a multitude of options from which to choose.


    Many colleges and universities require freshmen to live in on-campus dorms. By the end of the year, many students are earnestly seeking a place to live away from campus for many reasons. Some of the top complaints about dorm living are:

    • Too loudWith so many people under one roof, it can be difficult to find time alone and practically impossible to get study time without any distractions.
    • Little spaceSharing a tiny room with one or more friends is tough enough, but when you add communal bathrooms and showers with the entire floor it can be downright frustrating.
    • Many rulesRules are a necessary evil when hundreds of students share space. “While the rules implemented on college campuses are designed to promote safety, health and learning, these responsibilities are largely left to students living off-campus, a potential draw to living off-campus,” says Burns.
    • Meal plan non-negotiableDorm rooms don’t come with kitchens, which is why most colleges require on-campus students to pay for a meal plan, even if they don’t use it. The average cost for 20 meals a week at all institutions has increased 44 percent in the past 10 years according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
    • Roommate problemsIt’s rare to be able to choose your own roommate, especially as a freshman. Conflicting personalities can lead to disagreements over how to decorate, keep the room clean and more.


    Living alone is just one of the many off-campus options and often the most expensive. Here are several ways students are experiencing off-campus living.

    • Rent with roommates“This option allows students to live with people they like and share the financial burden,” says Burns.
    • Live with familyLiving with family can mean enrolling at a school close to home after high school or going away to a school nearby extended family. Either way, this option usually includes meals as well as a support system close by.
    • Trade work/services for rentSome families in neighborhoods close to college campuses will provide room and board in exchange for babysitting, light housework or yard work. “Working as a nanny or housekeeping in return for rent can be a great financial savings,” explains Burns. “If the situation is good, the person(s) may serve as a good reference in the future.”
    • Live with a seniorThough it’s a relatively new phenomenon, there are quite a few programs dedicated to pairing older homeowners with college students.
    • Try off-campus university housingSingle or married grad students are often able to live in off-campus housing managed by the school.

  • Resources for Finding Rental Housing

    How can students find opportunities for the types of living arrangements discussed on this page? Below are some resources to get you started.

    • Apartment GuideThe student section of Apartment Guide provides a searchable database of college apartments and floor plans in all 50 states.
    • Rent.comStudents can find the tools to find apartments, condos and houses on the off-campus housing page.
    • Your school’s resource centerCheck to see if your school has an off-campus resource center, like what is offered at the University of South Carolina.

    Housing spotlight: Would you live in a senior center?

    According to Burns, “Living with a senior is a great living-learning opportunity that could be financially, professionally and personally beneficial to students. Students could have opportunities to showcase some of their strengths (organizational, interpersonal and social).” And the social connection can have health benefits for the elderly such as keeping blood pressure in check and dementia at bay.

    Living in a senior center can take many forms. For instance, Judson Manor, at the Cleveland Institute of Music, houses 120 elderly adults and five students who perform monthly recitals in exchange for rent. A 2016 pilot program at New York University in Manhattan, housed students in bedrooms of nearby senior citizens for a lower rent cost than they would pay elsewhere. Seniors benefitted by getting extra income each month, making it a win-win situation.

    Programs exists outside the U.S. too. In the Netherlands, students stay in small apartments at a Humanitas retirement home rent-free. In turn, they spend 30 hours a month minimum involved in social activities with the residents, such as taking part in birthday celebrations, watching sports on television, and spending time with the sick.

    How to Pay for Off-Campus Housing

    A student’s financial aid package is based on the Cost of Living set by the school, which may not be accurate. “Students should be careful about how much they borrow for off-campus living,” explains Burns. “Off-campus housing can affect how much aid is offered to students.”

    According to the former research laboratory, Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 50 percent of colleges significantly underestimate or overestimate off-campus living costs. If the Cost of Living is too low, students may find there is not enough to cover the rent each month.

    Burns warns, “Also be leery of financial aid packages that estimate cost of living that seems way too high.” It may seem like you’ve received a windfall of extra money but all student loans need to be repaid in full.

    Ideally, students should keep student loan and monthly rent payments as low as possible. Since many students may never have rented a room or apartment before, The University of Puget Sound in Washington published a sample lease for students to read before signing on the dotted line.

    Also, consider this list for students paying for off-campus living:

    • Cost of depositLandlords or leasing companies usually require a deposit in case of future damages.
    • Uncovered monthly expensesFind out if your monthly rental payment includes utilities such as water and electric, cable or any other services.
    • Washer and dryerIs there a washing machine and dryer in your apartment or in the building? You may need to save your quarters just like on campus.
    • PetsIf you have a pet, ask if there is an extra deposit or monthly fee to keep it in your new place. You might find pets are not allowed.
    • SubleasingIt’s not easy to find a landlord who permits you to lease out your place to another student if you must move. But it’s a good idea to find out before you move in.

    Student Housing Cooperatives

    If you’re looking for a unique off-campus housing experience, find out if there is a student housing cooperative near your campus. In a student housing cooperative, students purchase a share in the house and work together to govern and maintain it, which keeps costs down.

    What They Are & What to Expect

    There’s no landlord in charge when you live at a student housing coop. Instead, you and the other members manage the home together as part of an organization like the North American Students of Cooperation (NASCO).

    The house runs smoothly by requiring residents to pay rent and work a weekly shift. Rent covers utilities, maintenance fees, garbage removal and similar services. Everyone works several hours a week to keep up the house by washing dishes, cleaning bathrooms and common areas, and other general upkeep. Members can also run for positions on the Board of Directors in lieu of working a regular shift. Everyone gathers for monthly meetings to hold elections, handle financial issues, allocate budgets and change house policies.

    Co-op Spotlight

    Since 1933, the Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC) has housed students from nearby UC Berkeley. It’s the largest student housing cooperative in the country, with more than 1300 students living in 17 houses. To be eligible to join, students must be enrolled at full-time at UC Berkeley.

    Plenty of perks come with membership to BSC, the largest of which is low rent. The coop keeps rent to below $750 a month, which is almost unheard of in the Bay Area. The BSC Alumni Association also offers scholarships. Members enjoy access to “free rooms” stocked with clothing and supplies left behind by former residents.

    As you can imagine, it takes a lot of organization to maintain a student co-op at Berkeley. For instance, members must work five hours a week, at one of the 50 jobs available in each house. Many residents choose to work dinner shifts at the commercial kitchens located in each house. A full meal must be prepared each evening for everyone who lives in the house, no easy feat because it’s included with rent. Members prepare other meals using food from the fully-stocked pantry full of food purchased in bulk by the coop to reduce costs.

    When something comes up, like a big test to study for, and a member knows he can’t make his shift, he can trade shifts with another member. There are consequences for those who just don’t show up for work–a fine paid to the coop. Instead of signing up for work shifts in the house, members can sign up to put in their hours at the central level in a warehouse or office for employment experience.

    How to Find a Co-op Near Your School

    Currently, the four biggest student housing cooperatives are at the following schools:

    Find a student cooperative house affiliated with NASCO here or check with the student affairs office on your campus. Some colleges and universities have a campus association for students, such as the University Cooperative Housing Association for the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) community.

    7 Tips for Avoiding Bad Living Situations

    No matter where you choose to live off campus, you will want it to be a successful experience. Below are some tips to avoid a bad living situation and ensure a positive year in your off-campus lodging.

  • Tip #1: Choose the right roommates

    Pick roommates you will actually want to live with and who share a common interest such as members of your sports team, students with a similar major, other artists or musicians, etc.

  • Tip #2: Figure out finances

    Talk about financials before signing a lease with others. Burn recommends having a frank conversation with your potential roommates “about the cost and impact of bills on each person. You don’t have to get too personal, but understanding the risks of living with others who may impact your life are important.”

  • Tip #3: Trust your gut

    Follow your instincts when picking a place to live. Visit the houses or apartments you are thinking seriously about to see the actual conditions. If it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.

  • Tip #4: Ask around

    Talk to people who already live there. “Don’t just visit places, visit people,” says Burns. “Get to know the landlord or management company that is responsible to keep you safe and upkeep your building. If in your search, the landlord is difficult to get a hold of, that is a good sign not to establish a rental relationship with him or her.”

  • Tip #5: Pay attention to costs

    Burns cautions, “If the price is too good to be true, then it probably is. Understand that when students search off campus, it is difficult to compare apples to apples. Off-campus there are fewer safety nets.”

  • Tip #6: Get renters' insurance

    If you don’t have a car, and aren’t in walking distance, you need some way to get to classes. Make sure there is a bus stop or other public transportation nearby.

  • Tip #7: Get renters' insurance

    Wherever you reside, you want your valuables to be safe. A low-cost renters’ policy can give you peace of mind. Just keep in mind that a renters’ insurance policy will only cover your valuables. If you have roommates, they’ll likely need to get their own policy.

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