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Student Loans

How to Pay for Room and Board

Room and board, which includes housing and meal costs, can account for a sizable chunk of your college planning budget. Whether you live on-campus or off and the school you attend have a significant impact on how much you pay. According to CollegeBoard, average costs for room and board ranged from $9,970 to $14,650 for the 2023 – 2024 academic year. 

If you’re wondering how to pay for room and board, your options may include financial aid. We’ll guide you through the various ways to pay for room and board, including scholarships, grants, and student loans.

Does financial aid cover room and board? 

Yes, financial aid—money a student receives to help pay for education costs—can be used to cover room and board. Your school determines how much financial aid you’re eligible for. How financial aid is applied to housing expenses depends on whether you live on-campus or off-campus. 

Does financial aid cover dorms?

Yes, financial aid can cover room and board costs for students who live on-campus in a dorm. Note that some schools require students to live on campus for the first one to two years of enrollment before allowing them to move off campus. 

When you receive financial aid, it’s typically disbursed to your school at the beginning of each term or semester. The school then applies the funds to your costs of attendance. Tuition and fees are paid first, followed by room and board. 

On-campus room and board can include:

  • Rent for the semester or term
  • Utilities, including electric, water, and internet service
  • Cable or satellite TV, if the school offers it
  • Access to amenities, such as an onsite laundry room
  • Parking

Any remaining funds after the school deducts room and board costs are turned over to you. The upside of living in a dorm on campus is that the cost of living is all-inclusive. You don’t need to pay rent or utilities separately; meal plans are often included, as are basic furniture and appliances.

Keep in mind that schools may rate individual dorms and rooms differently. For example, a private, single-occupancy room may cost more than a room you share with two or three other students. Likewise, you might pay more for a premium suite with a full kitchen versus a no-frills dorm room with a standard mini-fridge and microwave. 

Does financial aid cover housing?

Yes, financial aid can cover housing for students who cannot or prefer not to live in a dorm. That includes students who live in private housing by themselves or with roommates. You can use financial aid to pay for:

  • Rent
  • Utilities, including internet service
  • Cellphone service
  • Food
  • Parking and transportation
  • Furnishings

If you live off-campus, the school doesn’t deduct money for room and board from your financial aid award. Instead, it uses your aid to pay tuition and fees and then turns over any remaining funds to you. You’re then responsible for paying rent, utilities, and other housing expenses from that money. 

Greek housing works the same way when fraternity and sorority houses are privately owned. The school does not take money from your aid package for room and board; instead, it’s refunded to you, and you pay room and board, along with any other fees or dues, to the sorority or fraternity. 

Does FAFSA cover housing?

Yes, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is what schools use to decide how much aid you’re eligible to receive, which you can use to cover housing. When you complete the FAFSA, you must select a housing plan for each school you’d like to receive your financial aid information. 

The three options you can choose from are:

  1. On campus
  2. With parent
  3. Off-campus (assumes you’re not living with your parents)

The FAFSA determines your eligibility for federal student loans, grants, and work-study. Your total award package can include these types of aid, along with scholarships, school-based aid, or state-based aid. 

Once you complete the FAFSA, the schools listed determine your cost of attendance. This number includes room and board if you selected on-campus housing or living expenses if you selected off-campus housing. Schools must include room and board or living expenses in the cost of attendance budget for all students enrolled at least half-time. 

Colleges and universities have discretion in deciding what to charge for room and board or what to allocate for off-campus living expenses. Factors that can influence what you pay can include:

  • Location
  • Choice of school (private or public; two-year or four-year)
  • Year of enrollment
  • Average local housing costs 

Comparing the cost of on-campus and off-campus housing at the school you plan to attend can give you a better idea of which one would allow you to stretch your financial aid award the farthest. 

If you don’t fill out the FAFSA, you will not be eligible for federal financial aid. You could still apply for scholarships and grants, but those alone might not be enough to pay for room and board. Keep in mind that the FAFSA is also required for certain state aid programs. 

Our expert’s advice

Chloe Moore


It’s important to research the available housing options at your school. That way, you can be realistic about the costs and understand which housing option is best for you. Always opt for free assistance, such as financial aid, grants, and scholarships, before considering loans. Having roommates and becoming a resident advisor are also excellent ways to reduce your costs. If you’re leaning toward off-campus housing, don’t forget to factor in additional expenses, such as utilities, transportation to and from school, and meals. 

How to pay for college room and board 

Getting an accurate estimate of your costs can help you decide how to pay for room and board. Your school financial aid office should be able to provide you with an estimated budget for on-campus room and board or off-campus living expenses for the academic year you plan to enroll in. 

Once you have that number, you can begin exploring financing avenues. Here are six ways to pay for room and board in college, whether you plan to live on-campus or off.   

Funding optionWhat is it
Free federal financial aidAn application that determines eligibility for federal financial aid
Housing assistance grantsState-sponsored grants that don’t need to be repaid
ScholarshipsNeed- or merit-based awards that don’t need to be repaid
Resident advisorFree or discounted room and board in exchange for a work commitment
Federal student loansFixed-interest-rate loans to pay for college
Private student loansLoans to pay for college from private lenders

Free federal financial aid

As we mentioned, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step if you’re seeking financial aid for room and board. Your aid package, which may include student loans, grants, and work-study, can pay for:

  • Room and board if you live on campus
  • Living expenses if you live off-campus

Federal student aid can also be used for tuition, fees, transportation, and other eligible education expenses. You’ll need to be enrolled at an eligible school and meet other basic requirements to qualify for federal aid options. 

You can list up to 20 schools when you apply, and you’ll need to choose a housing option for each one. If you need to add more schools after submitting your FAFSA, you can go back and make changes to your application. 

Completing the FAFSA as early as possible is important because some federal aid is first-come, first-served. You can submit your FAFSA online and track your application progress through the Department of Education website. If you’re a dependent student, you’ll need financial information for yourself and your parents to fill out the form.

Housing assistance grants

Some states offer grants that don’t need to be repaid to help students with housing expenses. The available funding can depend on what programs are offered in your state and where you plan to go to school.

If you’re unsure what housing grants might be available or how to apply, check with your school’s financial aid office. Your state department of higher education can also be a helpful resource.

Here are a few examples of state housing assistance grant programs if you’re interested in using this option to pay for room and board:

You may be required to complete the FAFSA to apply for state housing assistance grants, even if you don’t plan to accept federal aid. State housing assistance grants may have deadlines or other requirements you need to meet to qualify, so it’s important to read through the details to ensure you’re eligible.


Scholarships are similar to grants because they don’t need to be repaid. You can use scholarships to pay for tuition and fees as well as room and board. Some are merit-based, meaning you’ll need a solid GPA and academic background to qualify, while others are awarded based on financial need.

Whether a scholarship permits you to use the funding for room and board can depend on the program. For example, if you get an athletic scholarship for the school, you might be able to use part of the money to pay for room, board, and meals while living on campus. 

You can apply for more than one scholarship, assuming you meet each program’s requirements. Our scholarship guide offers a detailed breakdown of where to find scholarships. When considering which ones to apply for, pay close attention to application requirements as well as deadlines to ensure you’re not missing out on any opportunities.

Resident advisor

If you’re in your second year of college or later, you may consider taking on a resident advisor (RA) position to get free or discounted room and board.

Resident advisors or resident assistants live on campus in a residence hall. They have specific duties, including:

  • Overseeing residents in their assigned areas to ensure that students are complying with housing rules
  • Planning resident activities, such as game nights or volunteer events
  • Helping to build connections between resident students and creating a sense of community

Being an RA is like having a job on top of managing schoolwork. Essentially, you’re on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For that reason, it’s important to understand what’s involved to ensure you can juggle your responsibilities.

How the RA program works to pay for room and board can vary by school. At Northwestern University, for example, resident assistants are not billed for room and board and earn $500 per semester. RAs need to meet certain requirements to qualify for free or discounted room and board, such as maintaining a minimum GPA and satisfactory academic progress each semester.

Federal student loans

If you think you might need to borrow to pay for school, federal student loans are the first option to consider. You’ll need to complete the FAFSA to find out which federal loans you qualify for.

Federal student loans can offer low, fixed interest rates and flexible repayment options, including income-driven repayment. Depending on your career plans, you may be able to qualify for federal loan forgiveness, which can help you save on higher education costs.

The types of federal student loans you can use to pay for room and board include:

Federal student loans are disbursed to the school, not the student, to pay for tuition, fees, room, board, and other expenses. The amount you can borrow will depend on what type of loan you’re getting, your year of enrollment, and your dependency status.

Private student loans

Private student loans can offer an alternative for paying for room and board if you’ve exhausted federal student loan funding or you’re denied a federal loan for any reason. These loans come from private lenders, so you won’t need the FAFSA to apply. If you qualify, funding is usually disbursed to the school, not the student.

Many private student lenders offer funding you can use to cover up to 100% of the cost of attendance minus any financial aid received. That includes:

  • Room and board costs if you plan to live on campus
  • Living expenses if you plan to stay off campus

Private student loans can have fixed or variable rates and varying loan terms. Some lenders charge fees for private student loans, but not all do.


Compare the best private student loan lenders to see what rates you might pay and how much you can borrow.

Qualification for private student loans is typically based on credit history and income. Finding a cosigner with a good credit history could increase your chances of being approved and getting the best rates.