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Student Loans

How to Pay for Room and Board

When planning out your budget for college expenses, tuition and fees might be the biggest concern. But it’s also important to factor in how to pay for room and board if you plan to live on campus.

Room and board generally includes costs for housing and meals. The amount you pay depends on where you attend school. According to CollegeBoard, room and board averaged $13,620 for the 2021-22 academic year at private colleges. At public universities, the average cost was slightly lower, at $11,950.

The good news is that there are different options for how to pay for room and board in college, including scholarships, grants, and student loans.

Six steps to pay for room and board in college

As mentioned, room and board generally refers to on-campus housing and meals. When reviewing your costs of attendance, room and board is often listed separately from tuition, fees, and other charges. If you’re not sure what you’re paying, you can ask your school for a detailed breakdown of the costs.

Exactly what’s included with room and board and how those charges add up can depend on the school. At UC Berkeley, for instance, room and board fees are charged separately from meal plan fees. UC Davis, on the other hand, includes meal plans in room and board fees for students who live on campus.

If you live off campus, you won’t be charged for room and board by the school. Instead, your basic living costs for housing and meals are determined by where you live. Off-campus housing options include renting an apartment, professionally-managed student housing, or living at home with parents.

In terms of how to pay for room and board in college, here are six steps to take to get the most affordable financing.

  1. Free federal financial aid
  2. Housing assistance grants
  3. Scholarships
  4. Resident advisor
  5. Federal student loans
  6. Private student loans

1. Free federal financial aid

If you’re interested in seeking funding to pay for room and board or other college expenses, completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step. The Department of Education uses the information you provide on the FAFSA to determine what type of federal aid you might qualify for, including:

  • Federal grants
  • Federal work-study
  • Federal student loans

Federal student aid can cover room and board costs if you live on-campus. You can also use federal aid to cover 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. 

It’s important to complete the FAFSA as early as possible since 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.

2. Housing assistance grants

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

Applications for state housing assistance grants can be included in the FAFSA, or they may require a separate application. You can check with your school’s financial aid office if you’re unsure what housing grants might be available or how to apply. Your state department of higher education can also be a helpful resource.

Here are a few examples of how state housing assistance grant programs work if you’re interested in applying for this type of aid to pay for room and board:

  • Cal Grant B. California offers the Cal Grant program to help students attending eligible schools pay for college costs. Cal Grant B specifically offers a financial award to help pay for living expenses, which can include room and board.
  • PA Postsecondary Educational Gratuity Program (PEGP). Pennsylvania offers a grant program that provides a waiver of room and board costs, as well as tuition and fees, to eligible students whose parents died in the line of duty.

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 carefully to ensure that you’re eligible.

3. Scholarships

Scholarships are similar to grants because they typically don’t need to be repaid. You can use scholarships to pay for tuition and fees, but they can also be a way to pay for room and board.

Whether a scholarship permits you to use the funding for room and board can depend on the program. For example, if you’re getting 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. Need- or merit-based academic scholarships can also help with room and board costs.

The great thing about scholarships is that you can apply for more than one, 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.

4. 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 have specific duties, including overseeing residents in their assigned area, planning resident activities, and helping to build connections between resident students.

But being an RA is like having a job on top of managing school work. For that reason, it’s important to be sure you understand what’s involved to make sure you can juggle different responsibilities.

How the RA program works to help you pay for room and board can vary by school. At Northwestern University, for example, resident assistants are not billed for room and board, and they’re also paid $500 per semester. RAs generally meet certain requirements to qualify for free or discounted room and board, including maintaining a minimum GPA and satisfactory academic progress each semester.

5. 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.

There are different types of federal student loans you can use to pay for room and board, including:

  • Direct Subsidized Loans. With subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest on your loans while you’re enrolled in school at least half-time, during your initial grace period after graduation, and during deferment periods. Subsidized loans are designed for undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loans. With unsubsidized loans, the federal government does not pay the interest for you at any time. Unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students; financial need is not a consideration.
  • Direct PLUS Loans. PLUS loans are designed to pay for education costs not covered by other financial aid. Parents can take out PLUS loans on behalf of undergraduate students, and graduate students can use them to pay for school.

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.

6. 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 are offered by 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 that you can use to cover up to 100% of the cost of attendance, less any financial aid received. That includes room and board costs if you plan to live on campus.

Private student loans can have fixed or variable rates, with varying loan terms. Some lenders charge fees for private student loans, but not all of them do. You can compare the best private student loan lenders to see what kind of 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.

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