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The study looked at 80 competitive four-year colleges and universities, including private and public nonprofit institutions.

Choosing to live off campus can be a big decision for students, and finances often play a significant role. When moving off campus, students on financial aid in particular often face complicated cost obstacles.

While many students say they choose to live off campus to save money, this option can actually pose different financial challenges, especially for students receiving financial aid to cover the cost of housing. Many also must cover extra charges like summer rent and security deposits out-of-pocket.

Student Financial Services estimates this year’s cost of attendance for a Penn student living on campus to be $75,303 and $73,714 off campus. SFS listed on-campus and off-campus housing to have different estimated costs for the first time in 2017, which means the amount of financial aid a student receives, which is based on estimated cost, will be lower for students living off campus. Before, the cost of attendance, and therefore financial aid, would be consistent for both.

These overall costs included in attendance are broken down into individual expenses, including tuition, dining, travel, and housing expenses. The difference between on and off campus students comes largely from the difference in expected housing costs: $10,200 for on-campus students and $9,351 for those who chose to live off campus.  

Barring any changes in expected family income, students’ financial aid assessment should not change throughout their four years whether they live on or off campus, Director of Communications for the Division of Finance Paul Richards said. Still, choosing to live on or off campus does impact how much of a student’s aid is allocated to housing. 

“The full cost of attendance for students living off campus is slightly smaller than the cost of attendance for students living on campus,” Richards said. “Rent prices in the area are slightly less expensive than maybe the rent prices that they're paying in a college house.”

Richards emphasized that despite this difference in fund allocation, students’ financial aid packages are still assessed in the same way, regardless of whether they are living on or off campus.

Penn’s allocated $9,351, Richards said, is only meant to cover students’ off-campus rent during the nine-month academic year, though most off-campus housing options require a 12-month lease. This leaves students with three extra months of summer rent which are not covered by their aid package. If they are not living on campus during the summer, many students try to find people to sublet during this time to mitigate the extra cost.

Though students living off campus may pay cheaper monthly rent than those living on campus, they can incur other charges the latter do not worry about in addition to summer rent costs, like security deposits, furnishings, moving fees, and separate utility bills. 

Richards recommends that students weigh all of the pros and cons of both housing options before choosing one, especially since each student’s financial situation is so different. 

“There's different expenses that you have to consider that come up at different times of year related to off-campus living that may make it more or less challenging depending on a person's situation," he said.

He continued, stressing that despite the challenges, it is possible for students to live off campus.

“Students who live off campus and are very good at budgeting can have a really successful experience and may even save money.”

Aside from the extra three months rent, both Richards and students cited security deposits as one of the main challenges in living off campus. Many students must pay a security deposit, or even their first month’s rent, before they are given their financial aid refund. So, they must pay these charges out-of-pocket, as the earliest a financial aid refund can be given out is 10 days before classes begin. 

Wharton junior Max Grove, who sits on the SFS Advisory Board and is the Academic Initiatives committee director for the Undergraduate Assembly, said he regularly meets with SFS administrators to discuss how to encourage better communication between students and administrators regarding financial aid. He added he agrees with Richards and stresses the importance of informing students of their options.

He said he feels that each student’s unique financial situation makes it difficult to generalize what housing option is best. Grove himself moved off campus after freshman year to save money, especially as he is in a self-described “awkward middle ground” with financial aid.

“I'm going to be paying the full amount of my housing whether it's on campus or off campus — So it is a little cheaper to move off campus, and I stayed in Philly over the summer so it was useful to have a place already established,” he said. 

Credit: Mona Lee

Students whose financial aid covers costs that are not billed by the University, as tuition is, will receive a refund for the amount of money the University determines they need. For example, if a student does not have a meal plan but is granted aid for dining, the University will send them a refund to cover the expense. 

College sophomore Summer Kapanka currently lives off campus and receives aid from Penn to cover the cost. She ultimately decided to move off campus to save money, as well as to be less restricted by rules that come with living in on-campus college housing. 

However, due to problems with her paperwork, Kapanka only received her financial aid refund within the last week. Until recently, Kapanka was paying rent out-of-pocket, which she said has been difficult.

Richards said that students’ refunds might be delayed either due to an individual student’s specific situation or because of delays in the federal verification process. During this process, the University must review a student’s FAFSA report to ensure that the data reported there is accurate. Students can be chosen to go through this process randomly, or because their FASA included estimate, incomplete, or inconsistent information. 

College sophomore Nicole Rocha, who currently lives in Harnwell College House, said she does not want to move off campus in part because she does not want to deal with the stress of waiting for her refund. She also lives in California and does not want to risk having to pay rent out of pocket over the summer.

“Even if you can find a way to get cheap enough housing that gets covered by financial aid, most people I know get stressed in the beginning of the year waiting for their refund money to come through,” she said.

Regardless, Kapanka does not regret living off campus, and said she has saved money by doing so. 

“[Living off campus] is a lot better than living on campus because I'm going to have so much more money,” she said, “My rent is $300 a month less than in the high rises.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the expected cost of living on campus as the expected cost of living off campus, and vice versa. The DP regrets the error.