As we prepare to finish this current school year I wanted to share some conversation starters that I am hoping you may find helpful as you speak with your residents and students who may be preparing to possibly move from on campus housing to off campus apartments, houses, or other independent living options.
Moving from on-campus housing to off-campus housing is a big decision for any college student and while it is one that many students may think they are eager to make for higher levels of independence (perceived or actual), as Uncle Ben shared with Peter Parker (AKA Spiderman): with great power comes great responsibility. As a result there are many factors for students to consider before signing on the dotted contract line, such as cost, location, and roommate situation.
Signing a lease
While many students living on campus likely had to complete some sort of housing contract, lease, or agreement, these can often be documents completed in collaboration with parents or other family members for undergraduate students. Documents for on-campus accommodation are often created to protect the interests of the university by way of providing structure and understanding of what is required of the resident.
Off-campus leases are similar but often can be rich with “legal lasagna” as I call it—or words concocted by attorneys to protect the interests of the landlord or property manager. Hidden fees and occupant restrictions and responsibilities can be buried within pages and pages of text and require careful study and keen observation skills. Further, many students have likely not yet signed a document as key as that of a lease. They can easily represent a rental cost of $25,000 or more over a given year before things like cleaning and late fees or security deposits (often first and last month’s rent) have even been factored into the overall cost.
One of the biggest factors in choosing whether to move off-campus is cost. On-campus housing can typically be more expensive than off-campus housing, especially if students live in a residence hall. It used to be that living off campus could save some significant cash but in recent years things have equalized between on and off campus housing options particularly when you factor in things many students take for granted on-campus like internet, dining hall access, HBO/Showtime/cable, and much more. However, there are some ways to save money on off-campus housing, such as living with roommates or renting a house instead of an apartment.
Another important factor to consider is location. On-campus housing is typically located on or near campus, which makes it easy to get to classes and other activities. Off-campus housing can be located anywhere in the city or town, so students will need to factor in the commute to campus when making their decision on where to live off campus. And there isn’t always a bus or shuttle to take them conveniently from the front of their building to class on the other side of campus.
Many students will likely find themselves living with roommates and they will need to decide how they want to find them. At my previous institution and my current institution we have a service provider that hosts local properties where students can search by price, location, amenities, local transit information, school district info (for those with littles), and even a roommate search function a la Match.com.
Students are often so excited to move off campus and pick their own roommates (as on campus they are often picked for the student) that when they move off it can seem like a great option to pick a good friend to live with for that next year. It sounds perfect, right? Someone they know well and get along groovy with—but this isn’t all it is cracked up to me. Best friends do not always make the best roommates. Can you say with utmost certainty you know what it is like to live with a best friend before you actually do it? Unlike on-campus housing it is very rarely an opportunity that students will be able to “swap” rooms and roommates should they encounter a roommate conflict and leases can be very hard to break. While subletting, or having someone else take over the remainder of a lease term, can sometimes be an option the student may have to continue paying rent until they identify a new person to take over their lease obligation.
Asking key questions about habits, space needs, cleanliness, guests, and yes–conflict, are going to be very important when it comes to picking any roommate but especially those besties. It’s important to find roommates who are compatible with the student and who they can trust… to not burn the place down, lock the doors when they leave, and pay the bills every month.
There are a few other factors to consider when moving from on-campus housing to off-campus housing, such as the type of housing one wants, the amenities one needs, and the neighborhood one wants to live in. Ultimately, the decision of whether to move off-campus is a personal one. Students should weigh the pros and cons carefully and make the decision that’s best for them and not just their parents.
Here are some additional tips for making the transition to off-campus housing a smooth one:
- Start planning early. The earlier students start looking for off-campus housing, the more options they will have and the better your chances of finding a place that’s ideal for them. In Boulder, CO (where I live and work) and many college towns, preleasing, or signing a lease for an apartment before actually moving in, has crept earlier and earlier each year. I conducted an extensive survey on preleasing several years back and at that time some college towns were seeing preleasing starting as early as September and at one institution in Texas students were signing leases for the following fall semester before they had even started as first-year students. Yes. Signing leases before they had even started. You read that right.
Unfortunately, this is an unhelpful scenario for so many reasons. It does not allow students to adjust organically to their on-campus living environment, creates undue stress on finding something quick and mass hysteria in the halls once one student has signed a lease and artificially can inflate the cost of some housing options by landlords or property managers looking to make the most money. Further, it does an incredible disservice to educating students on what to look for in a lease and how to be knowledgeable of their rights and responsibilities.
Financial literacy is a critical area of understanding for all students but is often something not covered formally. Check to see if any offices or staff on your campus or within your organization may offer financial literacy workshops, 1:1 sessions, or financial coaching or counseling. Help pepper reasonable expectations with students on the cost of off-campus housing, food, amenities such as internet, TV, and transportation. Ubering everywhere adds up fast.
- Do research. Before students start looking at off-campus housing, they should take some time to research different neighborhoods and types of housing. This will help them narrow down options and find a place that’s a good fit for them.
Work to provide information on amenities offered by on-campus housing versus things a student may be required to take on as an independent life skill such as cooking, commuting to campus, finding community/social opportunities, or even conflict resolution support and provide opportunities for students to reflect on what their primary needs and desires are as it relates to their housing situation.
- Lease signing. Students should be prepared to sign a lease once they find a place they like. Since mom and dad often serve as co-signers, it is also important they review the lease too. Leases are very rarely easy to break and can be confusing to review so it is recommended that students explore each one carefully and to not assume they are all created equal. Spoiler alert: they are not.
Residence Life staff are encouraged to promote lease reviews even when it comes to signing or (re)signing an on-campus contract to provide early encouragement and education around things to look for in any contracts a student may sign later in life. Many campuses like those I have previously worked on have an office dedicated to student legal support and assistance. Explore if such an office exists and consider partnering with them to host an informational workshop on reviewing a lease and services such an office may provide to your students.
- Moving on up and in. If possible, students should consider moving into their off-campus housing before the start of the semester. This will give them time to get settled in and adjust to their new living situation. In fact this is more often than not the case due to lease start timing whether it be at the start of the month school would start, or two or three weeks before classes begin. Due to turns (just like on campus), an early move-in is not always possible so students may need to consider this with their arrival back to town and their move-in.
Many students don’t consider what may be required from year to year as it relates to storing items if they are not able to move into an off-campus unit straight from on-campus housing. While many off-campus leases will often be 12-months with more limited options around 9-month or academic year leases, students should still consider what their move-in and out timeframes may look like based on their needs. Does your institution or organization have storage options or preferred vendor arrangements in place? This can be a great addition to monthly RA check-ins (intentional interactions) with residents.
- Getting involved in a new community. One of the best ways to adjust to off-campus housing is to get involved in one’s new community. Join a club, volunteer, or get a part-time job. This will help students meet new people and make friends in their new neighborhood. While I often would speak to students in my previous role that were quick to point out that permanent residents (those residents who are not students) decided to live in their student neighborhood, it is often the other way around where a permanent resident has lived on a block or neighborhood for many years and has seen their street convert from single family homes to a host of student rentals. This can cause negative community interactions and it is important for students to understand their role and responsibilities as members of a larger community.
While many students are excited to move off campus and live with individuals they have selected, for some this can become an isolating and overwhelming experience. Helping students find their fit in the larger community surrounding campus can be a great investment while students are living on campus. Consider how you may provide information on local transportation options such as bus or rail lines, service learning engagement opportunities, local landmarks or cultural opportunities, or even good places to eat as part of the socialization process for introducing your residents to the community outside of campus.