If a student decides to go to a college one or more hours away from home, a large part of their living expense is room and board. Of course, there are the traditional dorm rooms and meal plans or off campus apartments. But both of these options are rather expensive. At my Alma mater, the University of Michigan, a dorm room and a meal plan can run a student anywhere from $8,370 for a triple to $12,530 for a single with a private bath. A studio off campus can run $650 per month and a 3 bedroom apartment $1,500 a month. Neither of the apartment options includes heat, electricity or food.
However, if a student is willing to take the non-traditional route, there are a few options available that will cost the student less out of pocket and ultimately reduce the amount of student loan debt they may have to acquire.
Consider these alternative college housing options:
Live in a co-op
When I attended U of M, I got tired of cooking every night and sharing an apartment with three other (often very messy) people. The rent was expensive as was the food, heating, electricity and gas. Ultimately, I decided to move into a co-op. Although it sounds like a throwback from the 1970s, a co-op can be an excellent place to live for a college student looking to save money. For the 2011-2012 school year, a room in a co-op house will cost $4,680, or $585 a month. This amount includes rent, utilities and food.
The co-op sizes range from 20 to 50 students. I lived in one that had two large houses right next to one another and could accommodate 50 students. Room sizes range from triples to singles. Evening meals are served 5 nights a week, and in return for the low cost of living there, members are expected to do 3 to 5 hours of work a week. I partnered with another member and cooked one night a week for 3 hours to prepare enough food for a dinner for 50. Also, our house included two very large living rooms, a rec room downstairs with a pool table and a piano, and a dining area large enough to accommodate 50 people eating dinner.
While I had some great times at the co-op there can be downsides such as dealing with others who are not doing their chores, or sometimes living in a messy or noisy environment. Yet, the co-op I lived in truly felt like a home away from home, and it saved me a bundle.
Buy a home
A friend I went to school with emptied his savings, and his parents raided their savings to buy a condo close to campus. He lived there with his brother while they both attended U of M. They shared a bedroom and rented out the other bedroom to another student.
There are several benefits to this—what you are paying each month in a mortgage payment is hopefully giving you equity in the house, you can offset part of the mortgage payment through renting out part of the home, and it offers the student a more comfortable, quiet environment in which to live. In addition, the student gets to practice managing a home and working as a landlord if there are renters.
There are drawbacks though, such as maintaining the home and handling the repairs and other problems that occur with home ownership. There is also the risk that you will not be able to sell the home when the student finishes college or that you may lose equity in the home. However, you could certainly hold on to the home and rent it out after your child graduates in which case it may become an excellent property investment.
Buying a home worked out perfectly for my friend, though. He never left the college town and is still living in the home, years later.
If you or your child is going away to college, recognize that there are living arrangements outside of the traditional dorm or apartment. These alternative living arrangements are often much cheaper than the traditional route, yet still offer students a safe, comfortable place to live during the four years of college.