Universities in the US typically offer students housing within campus premises, usually called “residence halls.” These housing units are owned and operated by the university, with students signing a housing contract and paying “room and board” fees to the university to occupy the assigned room for the duration of the academic term. In this respect, students are tenants and the universities are the landlords. Campus housing types differ from each university and range from traditional dormitory-styled buildings to student apartments. A large percentage of the students who live on-campus are undergraduate, as most universities mandate first-year students to stay on-campus. The rest are graduate students, who are usually given separate living quarters from undergraduate students. Universities also typically offer students, at an additional fee, an accompanying meal plan that permits students to eat at designated locations around campus.
Types of Campus Housing
Each university has its own types of on-campus housing. Most universities will have several residence halls built near each other, forming housing complexes. Some of the buildings are smaller three to five story buildings housing only a few hundred students, while others are high-rise buildings with ten to twenty floors housing a thousand students. Some universities also have student villages that consist of student apartments and townhouses.
Within each building, there may be different types of room configurations. The following is a short list of the more common room configurations that can be found in US residence halls.
- Single Room: One room occupied by only one person. May or may not have attached bathroom. If no attached bathroom, then occupant must use common bathrooms in hallway. Typically, this type of room is given to students in their third year and beyond, as well as residence advisors.
- Double Room: This is the most common type of room that can be found in American residence halls, consisting of only one room shared by two occupants. Room may or may not have an attached bathroom; if none, then occupants must use common bathroom in hallway.
- Cluster/Suite: Resembles an apartment without a kitchen. Suite will have one or more bedrooms with a common living area and full bathroom attached. Each bedroom may be assigned to just a single occupant, or is shared by two or more occupants. Typically, suites with more than two bedrooms attached are called clusters and will come with bathrooms with multiple shower stalls, toilets, and sinks to accommodate the many occupants.
- Student Apartment: University-owned apartment, complete with full bathrooms, a complete kitchen, living room, and one or more bedrooms. Bedrooms may be occupied by a single occupant, or may be shared by two.
- Homes: Although extremely rare, universities may sometimes purchase a home near campus and convert it into campus housing. Typically, students following a particular program are housed in homes like these, with two or more occupants per bedroom.
Off-campus housing typically refers to housing that is not owned, operated, and provided by the university, not served by university staff, and not within the area owned by the university. Most off-campus housing is located immediately outside of the campus area, usually within the range of several miles. Off-campus housing may be residences owned by private individuals or those owned by a property leasing company.
The information provided here is meant as a general guide. Students should consult their respective university housing offices for more detailed information on off-campus housing.
Types of off-campus housing
Housing may come in the form of homes, apartments, or single rooms in a currently occupied home. Depending on the location of the university, the actual shapes of the houses available may vary. Urban campuses located in the middle of large cities like Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston may not have any single houses available close to campus, but have plenty of apartments and rooms for rent due to the tight urban surroundings. Campuses in smaller cities may have a mix of apartments, rooms and entire homes for rent. Rural campuses, like those normally found in the Midwestern states, may have a few homes available, with most students staying on-campus in university housing instead.
Who can live off-campus
Most universities do not allow students below the age of 18 and those within their first year of study to live off-campus. Universities do this for legal reasons and to introduce students to campus life in a more structured environment. It is best to consult the specific university’s policy regarding these limitations.
Most students move to off-campus housing during their third year. By this time, students are generally in their major’s upper level classes and are also more mature.
Students may choose to live alone or with roommates off-campus, depending on the type of housing the student stays in. Most students choose to stay with roommates to help cut rental costs and for companionship and safety. Some students get their friends or relatives to live with them, while others seek roommates through the campus housing office.
Pro’s and Con’s of living off-campus
Each student must decide which type of housing fits them best.
The pros of living off-campus would be having a more private living space and freedom from dorm rules and regulations. Living off-campus also does not subject the student to specific dorm move-out dates, and in most cases, students are able to cook in their own kitchen.
However, living off-campus may mean a longer travel time to classes, as off-campus housing is not immediately within the university’s compound. Some students are lucky enough to be within walking distance, while some may require taking public transportation or using a bicycle or even a car to get to campus. Living off-campus may also be lonelier for some students used to living in dorms, where entire buildings are a community by themselves and floormates are almost like family. Although this may vary by university, most off-campus residents are not eligible for any campus meal plans, meaning that students must take time to prepare their own meals.
Finding off-campus housing
The process for getting off-campus housing starts with a property search. The best way to get information is through the university housing office, which usually has resources, if not a separate division, for off-campus housing. University off-campus housing offices are not the real estate agents or property managers for off-campus housing, so they cannot show actual properties to students. However, they should have information on the university area real estate agents and property management companies that are actually in charge of the properties. Some universities even have online listings of available properties and points of contact, others hold off-campus housing fairs to connect students with property owners. All this information can be obtained by asking the housing office.
Once the student has decided on a property to rent, these are typical steps required:
- Fill out an application, which provides the landlord some information about the student. Usually, there is a small fee that accompanies this. Some locations require applicants under 23 to have a cosigner, usually a parent or guardian.
- If the application is approved, then the student is asked to sign a lease. A lease lists out the terms and conditions for staying in the residence. Leases are agreements between the landlord and the student, and are negotiable but must be read very carefully before signing. At this point, it is strongly recommended that students take a copy of the lease to the housing office and have someone there review it. Most universities have a housing legal clinic where advisors will review students’ leases for free or a small fee. At this point, students should also go through the property with the owners and have its condition documented.
- If the lease is clear, then the student and cosigner will sign the lease. Students should keep a copy of the lease as a very important document of their stay at the residence.
- Most landlords will also ask that students pay a security deposit, which will be refunded when the students vacate the property if the property is returned in the same condition that it was first rented. Some property owners may also ask for the first month’s rent upfront, so students should be ready by having some money available for this. Students should also know what are the penalties for late payment of rent.
Other things to consider
- Furnishings: Some properties come furnished with some appliances and furniture, some do not. If it is furnished, students should take note of the condition of the furnishings and understand the terms of the lease regarding their use during their stay.
- Parking: Some properties include parking space, which others do not. The lease may cover parking and may state how many parking spaces each property comes with. Students should also know what are the parking regulations in their area, if parking is not included in the property.
- Carpet: If the property is carpeted, students should check if they are to be cleaned before moving in, and cleaned again before moving out.
- Pets: If students wish to have pets, they should check the terms of the lease first, as some properties strictly do not allow pets.
- Utilities: Utilities, such as water, electricity, and gas, are sometimes included in the monthly rent. Students should check on what utilities they are responsible for. Students have the right to request for copies of the bills from the landlord.
- Repairs: Not all properties are perfect. Students should check if repairs are to be done before moving in. Students should also check the landlord’s terms for damages that happen while the student is staying in the property.
- Locks: Students should find out whether the locks will be changed prior to moving in, and whether they can request new locks if landlords do not already change the locks for new tenants.
- Roommates and Subleases: Some landlords require everyone staying in the residence to sign the lease and be held responsible. Some landlords also have conditions regarding subleasing. Students should always verify the conditions with the landlord before renting out any part of the residence to anyone else.
- Safety: In most cases, landlords and real estate agents cannot officially state how safe the area is, or tell what kind of people live there. It is up to the student to check on this information beforehand. Statistics are usually available from the local government.
- What you see is what you get: Students should ensure that they are getting the residence they actually viewed, not something else. Students should also ensure that they know where and how to get the keys.
Students should consult the university housing office immediately. Most universities today through the Housing Office offer Housing Legal Clinics that can provide advice on how to settle disagreements or even arrange for a mediation session. Students should also consult the housing office if they feel that they are being discriminated against in any way, such as race, religion, national origin, or gender. Students should note that moving out before a lease expires might carry a penalty as it violates the lease terms. However, if a dangerous situation arises, then students should call the police immediately.
In most cases, the landlord must give at least a 24-hour notice before entering the property in a non-emergency situation. Students should notify the campus housing office if there is a problem with the landlord entering without notice in non-emergency cases.
If there is a problem with the residence and the landlord refuses to repair it, the student should immediately notify the housing office and local authorities. Some problems are a direct threat to the health, safety, and well being of the student and should not have repairs postponed or ignored.
Landlords sometimes evict students, depending on the terms and conditions. Students should immediately notify the university housing office if this occurs so the students may get advice on their rights and responsibilities. Also, there are cases where the residence is sold while the student is living there. Students are not necessarily evicted but will usually get a new landlord and some changes in the lease. The current lease should remain valid. If students have any doubts, they should seek the advice of the housing office.
Students should note that although their neighborhood is close to campus, not all their neighbors are students or have ties to the university. This is particularly true in urban campuses. Some of the students’ neighbors may be fellow students, while others may be professionals, people with families, or longtime residents of the area. Living off-campus is sometimes the best way to learn to be a good neighbor and get to know the names and faces of those outside the university community. Neighbors generally welcome the campus crowd, especially if they have lived in the area for a long time.
But students should also know and learn on how to be a good neighbor in return:
- Keep clean: This means keeping the property free of trash, long grass and weeds, and items that do not belong outside, such as indoor furniture.
- Keep quiet: Students are welcome to have parties but should also keep the noise down and visitors inside. Too much noise can invite a noise violation complaint from the local authorities. In most universities, the Student Code of Conduct applies regardless of whether the student is on or off-campus.Students should be on their best behavior and be in control of those who come to visit them.
- Keep in touch: Get to know the neighbors, and share contact information.
Are you are interested to stay off-campus? Are you ready to take on the commitment and responsibility of staying off-campus? For more information on the specific university’s off-campus housing options, students should contact their university housing office. This could be done even prior to your departure to the respective universities.
Depending on the university, the buildings may be fully dedicated for just a single sex, or it may be coed. Coed dorms may have men and women living in separate wings or separate floors, or may have men and women on the same floor but in separate rooms. Most universities have separate bathrooms for men and women in the hallways for rooms that do not come with attached bathrooms.
Different universities will offer different amenities for their residence halls. However, the following are almost standard in most rooms:
- An extra long twin bed frame and mattress for each occupant
- Writing table and chair
- Chest of drawers
- High-speed internet connection (Ethernet jack or wireless network)
- Cable TV and Telephone jack
- Blinds/Curtains on windows
Some universities may provide more items, such as small sofas, lamps, shower curtains for attached bathrooms, and carpeted floors in each room. Some rooms may come with air conditioning, but all rooms will have heating for winter. Some rooms may also be equipped with a telephone, small microwave, and refrigerator, either inclusive in the dorm fees or for an extra fee. Students are responsible for checking ahead of time what their room and board fees cover, and what additional items the university can provide for a nominal fee.
Buildings may have their own amenities such as laundry rooms, mailboxes, fitness rooms, study rooms, pianos, TV lounges, computer labs, basketball/volleyball courts, convenience stores, recreation rooms with pool tables, bike racks, recycling/trash disposal rooms, music practice rooms, and common kitchens where students may cook their own meals. Other amenities may be available for students to borrow, such as vacuum cleaners, sports equipment, barbeque grills, board games, and carts for moving items into or out of rooms. All buildings will typically have a secured card access system as a mandatory amenity, allowing only building residents with student ID cards to open building doors using a magnetic card reader or electronic key. Buildings will also normally have a front desk staffed 24 hours a day and university police providing security. By US law, all buildings must abide by the American Disabilities Act and provide amenities for disabled students like wheelchair ramps, Braille signs, and elevators.
For students with cars, most universities will offer special campus resident parking permits that will allow students to park their cars overnight on-campus lots. However, due to overcrowding, some universities strongly discourage or ban first-year students from bringing cars to campus, allowing exceptions only in some circumstances. Parking permits are usually sold for a fee by the campus transportation and parking office and are not included in the fees for on-campus housing.
Utilities such as water, trash, gas, electricity, and high-speed Internet access are included in the fees. Some universities also include phone bills for local calls and cable TV in the housing fees. However, at some universities, students must set up their own telephone and cable TV accounts and pay those bills separately from the housing fees.
Living in a residence hall has been described as living in a village or in a very large family. It is a very unique experience where students interact with their peers from different backgrounds and learn about how others live. It is also a place where there must be a high level of mutual tolerance toward differences, ranging from lifestyle differences such as sleeping hours to significant cultural differences. Residence halls also are places where some close and lifelong friends are made, given the close proximity and high frequency of meeting between residents. But residence halls are great places for young people to mature and learn values such as cooperation, tolerance, patience, friendship, respect and responsibility along the way.
Residence Hall Staff
In each building, there normally is a residence hall director. He or she is usually a university staff or a graduate student and works for the campus housing office. The hall director may reside in an apartment within the building or may only be present during certain hours of the day. Hall directors are responsible for supervising residence hall staff, coordinating activities among residents, and otherwise ensuring residents’ safety, well being, and general quality of life in the building. Assisting the hall director are university staff members serving as assistant hall directors, maintenance staff, housekeeping staff, and student employees who reside in the building itself.
Each floor on the building is typically staffed by a resident advisor or “RA” for short. The RA is a student who lives on the floor and is a peer of the residents. RA’s serve as both the supervisor to residents, ensuring adherence to residence hall rules and regulations, as well as a link between students and residence hall staff. The RA is also responsible for coordinating activities among floor residents like outings, study groups, and floor decorations, as well as mediating issues between residents should a problem arise. Residents who aspire to serve as RA’s may apply as candidates for upcoming academic terms through their hall directors.
Some universities organize communities known as ‘living-learning” communities within a particular floor, wing, or whole building. Living-learning communities allow students of similar majors or interests to live together and experience activities coordinated by the university targeted specifically for that group. Activities include field trips, guest speakers, and special projects for community members. Examples of communities for a particular major are engineering, health sciences, arts, or languages, while examples of communities for specific interests include student-athlete, international students, cultural groups, volunteer service, and future teachers. International student communities would normally mix American students with international students.
Residence hall complexes may organize group study or tutoring programs for residents. Students willing to tutor are matched with students in need of academic assistance and are given space within the residence halls to conduct sessions. Participation is completely voluntary and seeks to create a cooperative learning environment for residents.
Residence halls may also put together teams for participation in university intramural sports. In some cases, residence halls have their own “Olympic Games” against other halls in the spirit of friendly competition. Participation is once again voluntary, but gives residents the opportunity to meet residents in other halls as well as something fun to do during their free time. Games vary from sports like Ultimate Frisbee, touch American football, basketball, and volleyball, down to indoor games like poker, checkers, pool, and quiz games.
Generally, on-campus housing units are located very close to classroom buildings and laboratories on-campus and are within just a few minutes’ worth of walking distance from them. This proximity is usually the reason students choose to live in on-campus housing. Most students choose to either walk or ride a bicycle to class, with a few opting for more creative means, such as inline skating or skateboarding. Some universities have their campus housing at a further distance but provide regular shuttles between housing complexes and campus. Depending on the location of the university, on-campus housing also tends to be close to stores, restaurants, city bus stops, light rail/underground rail stations, and other public amenities.