The end of summer brings that time of year again, when fresh-faced young adults make their way to college campuses for their first year of higher education. With U.S. college tuition ranging from free to over $30,000 a year, there are a lot of decisions to make in the months leading up to September. 

One of the decisions that falls by the wayside is whether a student should live in off-campus or on-campus housing. While the choice has long existed and will likely continue to be there in the future, for many 18-year olds away from home for the first time, living on-campus is the obvious option. For other students – older ones returning to college or ones headed to school with friends – off-campus housing has benefits that living on-campus can’t provide. Unfortunately, choosing between on- and off-campus housing can be a pricey decision that’s hard to reverse once school starts.

Oh The People You’ll Meet

Living on-campus means that for the first time in most students’ lives, they’re on their own and surrounded by peers of the same age. This can be viewed in a positive or negative light.

First, living with people who are the same age and starting out in college could be great. You’ll get lost and search for the best pizza in town together and bond over shared first experiences. People are easy to meet in on-campus housing because of the community-minded atmosphere and social activities that the school hosts. It’s easy to make friends when no one else has friends either.

On the other hand, living in a group of people who are all the same age and have similar life experiences can get boring really fast. For some students, living off-campus with students who are even just a year or two older can be eye-opening. Having more experienced friends can also help freshmen avoid first-year pitfalls like going to the lame bar that advertises heavily in the school newspaper as well as helping them choose the best classes to take.

Stranger Danger!

Safety is a big concern for a lot of parents and their children heading off to college. On-campus housing provides 24-hour supervision, campus security and a resident advisor to help with community problems and conflicts.

The idea, though, that young adults need constant surveillance is antiquated at best. On-campus life can be a bore for a college student due to the strict application of the hundreds of rules that universities place on their students. In fact, many dormitories even go so far as to disallow overnight guests and prohibit alcohol.

Furthermore, on-campus housing has a severe disadvantage to off-campus accommodation due to students often sharing bedrooms. Theoretically, that doesn’t sound like a problem, but for privacy and security’s sake, sharing a room for eight months with a person who was a stranger in August isn’t something that excites a lot of people.

Let’s Talk Money

Why do shared-room dormitories exist if they aren’t an option that millennials are jumping to take? Obviously, money is a factor; according to Forbes, universities now charge an average of $8,000 a year for dormitory accommodation. That amount, fortunately for most stressed-out and pre-occupied college students, includes all utility and service bills. (For more, see 7 Expensive Mistakes College Students Make.)

While off-campus housing comes with more bills to pay, it is cheaper than the on-campus alternative. The university campus office will use charts and numbers to convince students otherwise, yet the fact remains that cheap deals can be found outside the school’s gates.

Take McGill for instance. It’s a downtown university, near a couple of subway stations and accommodation is in short supply. A non-luxury, shared on-campus room costs about $1,000 per month while a single room costs about $1,100 per month. Luxury rooms cost a few hundred dollars more, and ultimately all room assignments are determined in a lottery. On the other hand, off-campus housing, some closer to campus than on-campus accommodations, runs about $800 per month for a private room, plus about $50 a month for utilities. The added benefit of living off-campus is the freedom of not having to purchase a meal plan.

Meal plans are a great idea if the college provides fresh, healthy food at reasonable prices. When schools mandate meal plans and charge $5 for a slice of pizza, the ability to save a lot of money by preparing meals at home is infinitely more attractive. (For more, see How To Eat Healthy Food And Save Money.)

Age Of Convenience

The food offerings and meal plans at colleges highlight a significant trend among millennials: desire for convenience. It’s so much easier to pay someone $5 for a slice of pizza than it is to prepare a meal at home, and the student, or his parents, pays dearly for it.

An extension of this convenience is the process of getting housing in the first place: students can sign-up for on-campus housing, usually guaranteed, when they accept their admission to the school. Aside from a few details over the summer, the students do not have to worry about anything until move-in day. However, students wishing to live off-campus need to familiarize themselves with the area and must visit the college to find an apartment or room before school starts. It’s simply not as easy or convenient to live off-campus, and the universities charge higher costs for the services they provide.

Living on-campus is convenient for students as it is minutes from classrooms, their friends and the library. There can be little resemblance to real life while living on campus, and students may end up in a prolonged state of adolescence while living in the college bubble. Having off-campus housing forces the student into adulthood with bills and problems and delayed subways. Granted that isn’t what most parents or students want for their first year of university, but it’s an important thing to consider when debating whether to live on-campus or off-campus.

The Bottom Line

Choosing a place to live during the school year – either on-campus or off-campus – comes down to the personality of the student. Some might prefer a life in a single dormitory room where they won’t need to find their own apartment or do their own groceries. Other might love that many of their friends live in the same building as they do. Students looking to embrace the local culture or who have friends already off-campus would do best to choose the cheaper off-campus housing choice. Either way, both options have benefits and downsides, and after all, if you pick the wrong choice, it’s only for a year.