How to cut college housing costs

@Money March 27, 2012: 2:15 PM ET
cut college housing costs

(MONEY magazine) -- Over the past 20 years, the price of room and board at both public and private colleges has been rising at a much faster rate than inflation.

Let the advice that follows -- a roundup of insider secrets from college counselors, administrators, and parents in the trenches -- guide you in lowering housing costs and more. Families who use our several of our college tuition, housing, financial aid and student loan savings secrets can cut their costs by $10,000 a year -- or more.

Room and board: What colleges tell you

Schools usually quote room and board prices based on a standard double dorm room and full dining plan (19 meals a week). Estimates for 2012-13: about $9,200 for public colleges, $10,500 at private schools.

Room and board: What they don't tell you

Like tuition, average room and board prices have been rising at a faster clip than inflation for years. Most colleges have cheaper options available. The real food budget buster: the meals your child doesn't eat in the dining hall. More than half of college students' food purchases are made off campus, reports the food industry consulting firm Technomic.

Savings secrets

Start small. "Those all-you-can-eat plans are geared toward the linebacker who has five meals a day," says Dan Walls, senior associate director for college counseling at Pace Academy, an Atlanta prep school. "But for the student who sleeps through breakfast or has a more modest appetite, those plans are a waste of money."

How we cut college costs

Most schools offer three to five options, ranging from seven meals a week for about $1,000 a semester to unlimited meals for up to $2,500. Choose the smallest plan practicable to begin with.

Most schools give you a grace period of about a month after school begins to switch plans without penalty; your child can use that time to get a sense of how many on-campus meals his or her schedule allows. Plus, many schools let you bump up your plan at any time, but not to subtract, says Nona Golledge, director of dining at the University of Kansas.

Work it out. A few dozen colleges offer co-op housing with low rents in exchange for a few hours of work a week -- say, kitchen duty or working with the maintenance crew.

The co-ops near UCLA, for example, charge less than $5,000 a year for a double room and 19 meals a week, vs. $14,000 for a similar contract in the dorms. Upperclassmen who work as resident assistants can usually get free single dorm rooms. They act as sort of community managers, helping younger students get adjusted and enforcing rules on their floor. The downside: RAs are on duty 24/7.

Rough it. Many colleges charge less for living quarters that your child has to share with more students, or for dorms that are farther away from the heart of campus or lack amenities such as air conditioning.

A quadruple room at Carnegie Mellon, for example, costs $5,780 this year, $1,400 less than a double; at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, you'll pay $5,000 for a double with a private bathroom, vs. $3,900 for a double without one.

Explore off-campus options. After freshman year, most schools allow students to live off campus, which can be cheaper than the residence halls.

College towns usually have a ready supply of semi-furnished apartments close to campus; you can find listings through the school's housing department or your child can put out feelers on Facebook for places being vacated by graduating students. You'll owe rent for a full calendar year, vs. paying only for the academic year in the dorms, but if the monthly bill (with utilities) is at least 25% less than what the dorm charges, you should come out ahead.

Got a kid who's involved in Greek life? Some sorority and frat houses can be cheaper to live in than dorms or off-campus apartments, particularly if they offer a meal plan.

Molly Borter, an English major who graduated from DePauw University last year, estimates she saved about $4,800 during the two years she lived and ate in the Alpha Phi sorority. She notes, "Besides saving on the meal plan, I never had to buy the little extras that other students living off campus had to buy, like toilet paper and trash bags, because they were all provided."

NEXT: Finessing financial aid

Secrets to Paying for College:

For everything you need to know about what college will actually cost you and how to make it more affordable, see our College 101 guide. To top of page

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