Dorm vs Apartment? How to Choose What's Right For You

Renee Layberry
May 4, 2021

College life comes with many choices, from what to major in to where to live.   One choice you'll have to make right away is where to live. Should you pick the dorm on campus or share an apartment in the city?   You can make an educated decision about your college housing by carefully considering your options, deciding what factors are most important to you, and choosing the right fit.  

A comparison: Dorm vs apartment

When deciding whether you want to live in an on-campus dorm or an off-campus apartment, you need to carefully evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of both types of housing. Either setup can work, of course, but one might be preferable over the other.    This preference is completely personal, so what is best for you isn't necessarily what's best for your high school friend who is attending the same college. So, explore dorm and apartment pros and cons to find housing that works for you.  

Dorm life pros

Here are the positive aspects of living in a dorm on campus.  

It’s so convenient!

When it comes to convenience, the dorm can't be beat. You walk to your classes, the library, gym, and even social gatherings. You live immersed in campus life rather than just visiting campus when your class schedule requires you to. As a result, dorm living might give you a stronger connection to your college or university. You might be more inclined to attend events since they're so accessible.   There is an exception to this convenience rule. If your college has a couple or several campuses, your dorm might be on one while and the majority of your classes on another. Even if the school offers a shuttle bus service, the convenience factor is very much reduced, if not lost altogether.   Photo by Jose Fontano

Meeting other students and making friends is easier

Living in the dorm also allows you to connect with fellow students throughout the day. Your school will assign you a roommate so that you have an instant connection. Many facilities from the dorm room itself to the bathrooms, kitchen and laundry room are shared. When you're using these community spaces, you can meet fellow residents as well.    Dorms often host regular events, offering another social opportunity. You'll also have a resident advisor, or RA. That experienced student can help you navigate campus and dorm living and answer questions about college life. So, if you're coming to campus and looking to make new friends, dorm living may be right for you.  

Save money and time

There are other benefits to living on campus as well. Since you won't need a car (or to take public transport) to get to class, you can save on transportation fees and gas. You might opt to not bring a car at all, or – if you do, you might be eligible for a lower-priced parking pass since you live on campus.   However, dorm living comes with some drawbacks as well.   

Dorm life cons

Living in a dorm is expensive

Your university has set housing rates, so you'll pay whatever the annual housing fee is for your dorm of choice. There’s certainly not as much leeway in pricing as when you search online for a room in student housing off-campus.   Also, most schools require freshmen to purchase a meal plan. These tend to be much more expensive than cooking at home, and also limits your food choice options. If the cafeteria is a bit of a hike from your dorm, it’s not very convenient to grab a bite before class.   Photo by Samantha Gades

Kiss your privacy goodbye

Dorm living also typically offers less privacy than apartment living. While you will likely have roommates in either living situation, dorms usually require you to share a bedroom. So, you're sacrificing privacy when you choose to live on campus.    Plus, accommodations in dorms aren't particularly luxurious.   You'll share a small room equipped with just the basics: a twin-sized bed, a desk, and a small closet. Making this space feel like home will be left to your design skills and creativity. Keeping it tidy and liveable may be nearly impossible.  

Shared apartment pros

Sharing an apartment or house has several advantages.   

Way more space

Apartments give you much more space than your typical dorm room, and you’ll get more privacy too. You'll usually share the apartment with friends, but everyone will have their own bedroom – and sometimes their own bathroom as well.    Some apartments offer amenities too. You might luck into an outdoor pool, a community clubhouse, or an on-site gym. You won’t have to make a special trip to campus just to work out.  

You get to choose where you live

When you share an apartment, you have more control over where you live. On-campus, you rank your dorm preferences, but it’s the school that ultimately assigns you to your dorm.    Roommates, on the other hand, can tour apartments together to find one that meets their preferences. Plus, you can target your search to fit your budget, which gives you more control over how much you pay for housing each semester.   While apartments might deliver flexibility and improved accommodations, they have some drawbacks as well.    Photo by l zp

Suddenly, there's a commute

The biggest drawback is that you aren't living on campus. You’ll have to decide how to get to and from campus every day, and factor in the times it takes there and back. Some cities have bus routes that run from off-campus student housing to campus. While buses can help you save on gas money, you're also bound to the bus schedule.    Alternatively, you can drive to campus, but many college campuses are notorious for limited parking spaces for students. Plus, a parking pass usually comes with a cost. So, you might not want to deal with the hassle of finding a parking space every day and paying for it every semester.  

You have to find your own roommate

When you’re sharing an apartment or house, you have to find roommates. And you’ll have to sign a lease with those roommates, so they should be people you know and can rely on. If you have a group of friends you want to live with, then this won't be an issue. However, if you're new to the college and don't know anyone yet, finding suitable roommates can be challenging – and even a bit of a gamble.  

Evaluating your housing options

Understanding the pros and cons of both types of housing puts you one step closer to deciding if you should live in the dorm or share an apartment. Now, you have to dive into the details to determine what factors are most important to you. Consider these tips when evaluating your housing options for college.  

What year are you?

For both dorms and apartments, you're making a one-year, not a four-year commitment. So, make any housing decision one year at a time.    That means, if you're a freshman, living on campus might be best. In fact, some schools make it mandatory. Even if you have a choice though, dorm living immerses you into college life, allows you to meet lots of fellow students and make friends, and keeps getting around pretty simple. As you work through your college career, you can consider different housing options, including apartments.   Photo by Naassom Azevedo

What’s your housing (and food) budget?

Compare prices between the dorms and shared apartments in the area. Keep in mind that dorms charge room and board. That means your food costs, and fees for utilities like electricity and internet are included.   Your apartment might feature a lower rent, but you'll be on the hook for utilities. Be sure to find out exactly what's included in your apartment lease to accurately compare the two options. Remember that you’ll have to buy your own groceries. Check to see your student loans can help cover housing, which can offset out-of-pocket expenses.   The cost of housing can add substantially to your annual college fees, so choose a living situation with your budget in mind. If you live in a modestly priced apartment with friends, split the rent, and take the bus or carpool to campus, you might spend less than if you live on campus with all the amenities and conveniences.  

Your comfort level

You're used to living with your family. You’ve got your own bedroom and bathroom and all the privacy you need. College living is a major adjustment, as you quickly sacrifice privacy and are suddenly living with strangers all around you, even in your bedroom.   So, consider what living situation would be best for your social, emotional, and academic needs. Some students thrive when they're living in a dorm, seeing all those strangers just as friends they haven’t met yet. Other people much prefer the less crowded privacy that comes with off-campus living, maybe renting a bedroom (with your own bathroom!) in a private house. Whatever you choose, a dorm vs apartment is something you'll want to devote time to think about and make the right choice for you.