How Big Are College Dorms? (And Other Questions About Living Arrangements in College)

Katelyn from PSU popped us an email a couple days ago asking the following: “On average, how does an off-campus apartment compare to a dorm, space-wise? Are we talking like twice as big or barely bigger? Do you really get any bang for your buck?”

Thanks for the question, Katelyn! Before I jump into my take on your question, I want to throw it out to our readers. Is it worth it (in terms of space, cost, etc.) to get an off campus apartment or should Katelyn stick to the standard college living situation – the dorm? Feel free to leave your answers as comments below. Should a student move off campus or not?

Endless Possibilities

To be honest, this is a very difficult question because its answer depends on a large number of factors. For example, the price of real estate can vary drastically depending on what area of the country you live in, and colleges are hardly standardized in terms of what they charge for room and board. What’s more, off campus apartments can range in size from one bedroom efficiency units to five bedroom houses shared with four other people, and on campus dorms can operate much the same way. But to help answer our reader’s initial question and to serve the purposes of this article, we will be making a few generalizations regarding dorms and apartments.

Size and Layout

Dorms are the quintessential living arrangement of college students, but that doesn’t mean that they are ideal. The student dorms at most of the nation’s colleges and universities tend to be quite basic. They usually consist of a single medium to large-sized bedroom, which is generally shared by two people of the same sex. Bathrooms are usually shared between several pairs of roommates or even entire floors of students, and kitchens/ kitchenettes – if they’re available – tend to operate in much the same communal manner. In most colleges, the dorms are large enough for two people and their belongings, but the available space doesn’t allow for much more than that. Rarely do two roommates feel cramped or claustrophobic, but by the same token, few college students would describe their dorms as “roomy.” To give you a concrete visual, one figure suggests that the average dorm size is 12 feet by 19 feet, split between two people. So it’s enough space to live, but that’s about it.

Unless you decide to move into one of the aforementioned one bedroom efficiency units, off campus apartments are undeniably larger than most dorm rooms. Most apartment bedrooms are at least the same size as dorm rooms (or bigger), and, even if your bedroom ends up being physically smaller in size than a dorm, it will usually be yours to occupy privately, meaning that you’ll be able to get much more use out of your available space. Off campus apartments also come with larger kitchens than those provided in dorms, mostly because living off campus usually means you’ll be cooking for yourself instead of relying on your school’s dining hall. Finally, apartments generally also have a living room, giving you even more available space.

Are Dorms Worth It for YOU?

In terms of costs vs. benefits, the choice between dorms and apartments is a very personal one, and there are a number of things to consider beyond the basic question of which is larger in terms of space. For example, your personal financial situation definitely comes into play for this decision. Room and board for college dorms is certainly not free, and one would be hard pressed to even call it “cheap,” but many students are able to cover the price of living in an on campus dorm through student loans. This is very important because for many people, the ability to live for free while in college and then repay the loans later on lessens the financial blow, making dorms an attractive choice.

But there are other costs that should be considered beyond the obvious financial ones. Dorms, for example, come with a number of hidden costs, not least of which is their communal nature. Shared showers, bedrooms, kitchens, and bathrooms mean very little privacy and personal space. Dorms also often come with the annoyance of being surrounded by other people’s messes. Finally, whereas landlords for off campus apartments tend to be very good about fixing the things that are broken in your home, your school’s maintenance department might not be as quick to fulfill your work orders, so leaky faucets and broken hot water heaters could remain unfixed for weeks on end. For many students, the inconveniences of living in a dorm are simply not worth the perk of using student loans to cover their living expenses.

Do the Math

Off campus apartments may mean more privacy and personal space, but they can also mean more out of pocket expenses. While some colleges will permit you to use student loans to cover the cost of living off campus, many schools do not, meaning you’ll have to finance your apartment without the help of student loans. This is no problem for some students, but it could be a deal-breaker for others.

Regardless of your financial situation, before you make a decision, consider the following fact: Believe it or not, many students find that living off campus is cheaper than living in a dorm. The cost of renting an off campus apartment is often less than the “rent” you’re paying to live in a dorm, and your overpriced meal plan (that you might not even take full advantage of) is replaced by the act of purchasing only the groceries you need when you need them. Over time, this could equate to enormous savings over living in a dorm.

So if you’re considering moving off campus into an apartment, do the math. Figure out exactly how much you’re paying per month to live in a dorm, and compare that figure with the prices of apartments in your college community. Then factor in the cost of groceries, weigh the non-financial pros and cons of living in an apartment, and decide whether or not you can afford an apartment without the help of student loans (if that’s your school’s policy). As long as you have the financial means to pay for rent (read: Get a job.), in most cases, an off campus apartment is the obvious choice over a college dorm. Apartments not only give you much more space and privacy, but they sometimes also cost less in the long run, meaning they deliver much more “bang for your buck” than a dorm ever could.

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