Are Pricey Dorms 10 Times Better?

Housing options offer the easiest way to cut college costs.

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One of the easiest ways to reduce the cost of college is also one of the most overlooked: Find cheaper dorms.

Most students don't realize that dorm bills at many public universities are actually higher than the tuition bills, says Sandy Baum, an economist for the College Board. Reducing living costs can yield far greater savings than, say, taking fewer credit hours. The average college student pays between $8,000 and $9,500 a year for room and board, the College Board reports. Typically, $2,500 to $4,500 of that total pays for food. In 17 states, the average in-state public tuition is less than $6,000 a year.

A U.S. News analysis of just the dorm costs of hundreds of colleges across the country shows opportunities for dramatic savings by shopping for colleges with cheaper dorms and by shopping for cheaper dorm options at each college. There's a startling variation of more than $10,000 between the price of a standard shared double at the most expensive dorms in the country and the cheapest.

Of course, the sky is the limit for students wanting privacy and space. Apartment-style dorms at New York University cost more than $17,000 per academic year, for example.

But even standard shared double rooms at schools such as Suffolk University in Boston and the New School in New York cost more than $12,000 for the nine-month school year.

[See 10 Schools With Pricey Dorms.]

That's more than nine times more expensive than the cheapest dorms in the country. Northwestern Oklahoma State University, for example, charges just $1,300 for a suite-style dorm room with free Internet, basic cable, and many other amenities. Add in $2,400 for a cafeteria contract, and students can live for just over $300 a month.

Similarly, students at Blackburn College in Carlinville, Ill., pay just $2,315 for a standard dorm room with free Internet and 80 cable channels.

[See 10 Schools With Cheap Dorms.]

Of course, there are reasons those dorms are so cheap. The colleges are in small towns with very low real estate costs and nowhere near the cultural amenities of expensive cities such as New York and Boston. The rural communities also have scant public transportation, which means most students end up having higher transportation costs, such as car payments.

And at Blackburn, students who want air-conditioned rooms have to pay an extra $1,000. Senior Katie Chronister says the non-air-conditioned rooms can be tolerable if students have a good window and fan. The rooms are not luxurious, but they are sufficient for most students' meager needs, she says. "Eighty channels is more than I could watch . . . . A place to sleep and do our homework is all it is."

Students looking for low living costs can also seek out well-ranked state universities in low-cost areas such as Alabama, Arkansas, Iowa, Montana, Utah, and Wisconsin. Many public colleges in those states have such low dorm costs that their total sticker prices are comparatively affordable. At the University of Utah, a standard double room costs $3,100 per academic year per student. And tuition is less than $5,000.

But students aiming at pricey cities and elite campuses can also find surprising dorm bargains. Yale University's dorm costs of just $6,000 a year kept that Ivy League school's sticker price for tuition, fees, and room and board (but not books, travel, or other extras) to about $47,500 this year, which is lower than many other top-ranked private universities in lower-cost areas. In comparison, Vanderbilt University, which is also ranked in the top 20, charges at least $2,000 more for standard dorms. Its total sticker price exceeds $51,000. (On average, only about 25 percent of private-college students pay full sticker price. The rest get grants, averaging about $10,000, to reduce their out-of-pocket costs. About half of all public-university students get grants, but since their total costs are lower, their grants are much smaller.)

Most colleges also offer students cheaper dorm options. UCLA, which bills room and board together, will drop the standard room and board rate of $12,000 to about $10,600 for students who agree to share a room with two other students, instead of the standard one.