Dorm, Home or Off-campus: How College Housing Affects Cost of Attendance

Did you know that your college cost of attendance is subject to change based on your choice of housing on the FAFSA? Also, did you know that your cost of attendance could increase or decrease if housing were to change? For example, if on the FAFSA the student originally requests consideration as an on-campus dorm student, but later changes to commuter status by living at home, their cost of attendance would be reduced reflective of lower costs. Changing the cost of attendance may affect a students eligibility for some financial aid, here are some things to consider.

Remember the FAFSA? It specifically asks about your college living arrangements, and provides a drop down menu where the student selects “On-campus”, “With parent” or “Off-campus”. When the school receives the FAFSA including the student housing choice, it constructs a cost of attendance to account for the particular expenses.

There are pros and cons for any living arrangement:

How is “Cost of Attendance” Impacted by housing choice?

  • “On-Campus” This will carry the highest cost of attendance due to dorm costs plus the cost of the mandatory meal plan.
  • “Off-Campus” This figure can vary, but will generally be lower than the cost of dorms at the school, but higher than living at home with parents.
  • “With Parents” The commuter student generally has the lowest cost of attendance with reduced room and board costs, but the portion of the cost of attendance used for transportation will be slightly higher.

Can this impact financial aid eligibility? Yes. Here is why. Financial aid is awarded considering financial need. Financial need is a technical term used to determine eligibility for certain funding sources. It follows a partiular equation: Cost of attendance – Expected Family Contribution = Financial Need.

If the student selects a housing option that would increase their cost of attendance this would cause an increase in financial need and may allow more financial aid to be made available.

Financial aid hangs in the balance: Students must file the FAFSA each year of college to qualify for financial aid. On the FAFSA the student can choose their housing option, and the financial aid office will add funding accordingly. It’s especially important for incoming freshman to take a good look at potential funding made available through their housing choice. An incoming student may be awarded with substantial financial aid to help pay for the costs of living at the dorms. A common strategy for some students is to file the FAFSA as a dorm student to see the maximum amount of funding that can be made available. If it’s sufficient, living at the dorms may be economical. If the funding increase is not enough, then request to be re-packaged as a commuter student and save some money. If the school only awards increased Parent PLUS loans to fund the extra dorm costs, it’s probably not economical. Students should be looking to increase grants due to increased financial need.

Off-campus variations: Calculations on off-campus housing costs can be adjusted through an appeal process. This may be important for adult and continuing students returning to school while raising a family, while potentially facing reduced income as well. To make an adjustment, contact the school’s financial aid office to verify the cost of attendance components for off-campus room, board, miscellaneous and transportation expenses. If the student has documentation proving that these costs are actually greater than what the school has estimated, the student may appeal. The appeal should simply explain that a re-evaluation of the cost of attendance must be considered including the additional documented expenses. If it’s determined the student has increased financial need, the student may qualify for other funding sources.

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