College Commuter or College Dorm Life?

Picture the first day of college: unpacking extra-long twin sheets, unloading the mini fridge, meeting the roommate and pinning up that Bob Marley poster.

For many students, that classic college introduction doesn’t happen. Nearly one in five freshmen, on average, commuted or lived off campus in fall 2015, according to data reported by 245 ranked National Universities.

One tempting reason to forego the traditional dormitory experience is cost. At the 1,109 ranked colleges responding to an annual survey, room and board ran an average $9,999 in 2014-2015. Students who live at home may be able to save a sizable chunk of change.

One of those students was Katie Thompson, who bunked with family members – first at her aunt’s house and then with her mother – while attending two community colleges. She later transferred to Virginia’s George Mason University, where she also lived off-campus while earning her bachelor’s degree. While she wonders how a more traditional residential college experience would have shaped her career path, she can’t argue with the cost savings.

“As far as the money, I’m definitely a success story,” says Thompson, who repaid her $5,500 debt in two years.

But experts warn that living off campus can cause students to miss an integral part of the college experience, especially at residential institutions.

“There’s an awful lot of worry we have when a student commutes from home,” says Tom Delahunt, vice president for admission and student financial planning at Drake University, a private residential campus in Iowa.

Here’s what to think about before making the choice to live at home during college.

  • Consider the school: Living at home can be a no-brainer for those attending one of the many colleges catering to commuters. Students taking online courses may rarely need to travel to the institution, much less move into the dorms. At those schools, living at home is par for the course.

On the flip side, living in the dormitories is a key part of the experience at some traditional four-year colleges, where commuters are a minority.

“Student experiences really depend on the culture of the school,” says Samantha Elliott, associate professor of biology at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, who’s taken note of how commuters perform in her class.

She’s found that those students tend to struggle finding study buddies on St. Mary’s residential campus. “Because they’re not on campus at those late evening times when most students end up scheduling study groups, we’ve really had to make efforts to encourage and help students make those connections,” she says.

  • Tally the costs of commuting: When it comes to the cash benefit of living at home, “let’s make sure it’s money saved and not money not-spent,” says Delahunt.

He cautions students against overspending on a car, gas, insurance, parking and other costs associated with commuting.

Another drawback, especially at a residential college, is that living at home may cut aid. One big risk is that students will assume that living off-campus is always cheaper than lodging on-campus, says Scott Juedes, director of student financial services and financial aid at Wellesley College in Massachusetts.

He points out that institutional need-based grants at Wellesley may be available to cover on-campus living costs but not expenses accrued while living at home or off-campus.

  • Contemplate the experience: Many traditional four-year colleges have a strong foundation in campus culture. And experts worry that missing out can be detrimental to a student’s academic and social success.

Feeling connected and engaged in a college setting can help guide students toward an on-time graduation, say experts. “The students that do commute are a bit of a retention risk for colleges,” says Delahunt.

Graduating late – or dropping out entirely – can cost students in delayed earnings and extra tuition payments.

Delahunt recommends landing an on-campus job as a way to earn money and engage in the college community.

Commuters who do well, especially when they’re not the norm, tend to be extroverts when reaching out to peers, mentors and advisers during their more limited on-campus time. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help and ask questions,” says Elliott, of St. Mary’s. “It doesn’t mean you have to stand up in front of a class of people.”