What Is Included in Room and Board in College: How to Cover the Costs?

What Is Included in Room and Board in College: How to Cover the Costs?
Imed Bouchrika, Phd by Imed Bouchrika, Phd
Chief Data Scientist & Head of Content

Room and board is something that incoming post-secondary students and their parents prepare for financially. After all, these concerns learners’ living spaces near their colleges or universities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the demand for student housing in the United States was on the rise, with inventory growth attaining 2.5% in 2019, up from the previous year’s 1.4%. The 2.3% vacancy rate in that year reflected the high demand for room and board in post-secondary institutions (Statista 2021).

Aside from tuition and fees, room and board take up 30% of the undergraduate’s annual budget (The College Board, 2021). Room and board is a major cost as listed in the college cost of attendance (COA). Depending on the type of financial aid awarded to the student, room and board costs may or may not be covered.

So, what is room and board in college? This guide will focus on the essential information that every student should know regarding what is included in room and board in college. Important details such as the different costs, room and board inclusions, and how to pay for college room and board are also discussed.

What is Included in Room and Board in College Table of Contents

  1. What is room and board?
  2. Inclusions of Room and Board
  3. The Cost of Room and Board in College
  4. Paying for College Room and Board

What is room and board?

What does room and board mean in college?

The room and board college definition refers to the student housing accompanied by a meal plan. It accounts for a good chunk of the average cost of college in the US. Does room and board include food? This particular expense, however, is not specific to college alone because everyone needs food and shelter. Room and board is frequently associated with college because part of the transition most students have to go through in college is living in student housing inside the campus or off-campus. Aside from tuition, room and board is a significant expense in computing overall college costs.

In the college setting, the room is where the student will stay during the semester or the entire school year. Private rooms, where the student occupies the room alone, would cost higher than a shared dorm room.

Meanwhile, board refers to the meal plans included in the particular room and board package the student chooses to avail. Depending on the type of school, there are different meal plan options offered to students. Typically, the more dining halls a school has, the more options the students will get. Every meal option has a specific price tag that influences the overall cost of room and board.

Michigan State University (MSU), for instance, offers student dining plans that are specifically designed for students that dine on campus, students that are often on the go, and also for students that live off-campus. Flexible meal plans such as the one offered by MSU also allow the student to plan meals according to budget.

Room and board basically cover the need for food and shelter while in college. In determining the overall cost of attending college, it is important to know what is included in a particular room and board package to ensure that you will get value for your money.

But more than value for money, the sense of community forged inside residence halls also plays an important role in student development. A recent survey by the American Campus Communities found that students who lived on or near campus showed positive learning and social experiences despite classes being held online.

Source: The College Board

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Inclusions of Room and Board

What does room and board include? In assessing the overall cost of college attendance, knowing what is included in the room and board fee is important.

Net price calculators found on college and university websites will usually ask whether the student plans to live on campus and avail of a meal plan. Depending on the student’s preferences, the net price calculator will provide the total cost that includes tuition and fees, and room and board.

In college, the room typically includes the essential furniture required for the student to live comfortably. These include the bed, a study table, chair, and a cabinet to put your stuff, and shelves for books. The room fee also covers utilities like electricity, heat, and internet access. Meanwhile, the more expensive university housing options might also include study pods, stylish lounge areas, and even fitness centers.

For the meal plans, schools sometimes offer flexibility. For instance, students have the option to avail of full board meals for seven days, or they may choose to avail of lunch and dinner only during weekdays. Some schools also offer unlimited meals, such as the unlimited meal plans of the public research university William and Mary that cost $2,623 per semester.

Room Options

It is important to note that most universities require freshmen to live in dorms within the campus. Although dorms are often equated with student housing, colleges and universities offer different types of rooms. Housing options include residence halls and dormitories, university housing, special interest housing, and off-campus housing.

Historically, “dormitory” and “residence hall” are not interchangeable terms. In fact, historical documents show that the National Association of Advisers and Deans of Men convened in 1947 and agreed to eliminate the word “dormitory” and instead use the term “residence hall” to convey that student housing units are something more than places to sleep. Through the years, however, these two terms have been used interchangeably to refer to on-campus housing.

Today, some of the room options universities and colleges offer include:

  • Residence Halls and Dormitories. Room types in dormitories can be double or triple occupancy. The cost of single occupancy rooms with private baths is higher than shared rooms with communal baths. The cost of room and board can be expensive especially if the host city of the college or university has a high cost of living.
  • University Housing. An alternative to dormitories is university housing, which are multi-bedroom apartments that provide more space than cramped dorms. Also owned by the school, these housing units are more modern and offer amenities that make dorms appear very basic.
  • Special Interest Housing. Some universities offer special interest housing that allows students with common academic and cultural interests to live together. In some schools, this type of housing is limited to upperclassmen only. Special interest housing options can be major-specific such as special interest housing for engineering students or humanities students. In some cases, it can be culture-specific such as special interest housing for Latino or African students. In these types of residences, students with the same background or interests live and study together.
  • Off-Campus Housing. In getting ready to transition from college to post-college life, college upperclassmen are often the group that chooses to live in off-campus houses and apartments. Cities with large student populations offer affordable housing units and apartments to students. In off-campus housing, students take on more responsibilities and learn about the economics of apartment living as they share in expenses such as utilities and unit upkeep.

Students can also opt to look for off-campus housing. However, it is important to note that not all accommodations are not created equal. A 2019 study by Brown et. al. on the influence of residence hall design on academic outcome found that students living in housing designed with socializing architecture, or the typical dorm design with rooms lined down on a single corridor, ended up having higher GPAs. This only means that students thrive in communities as they stay in dormitories, as compared to the private housing units where they often feel isolated, especially in their transition years.

Board Options

Board or meal plans in colleges are usually designed to accommodate the budget, as well as the dietary preferences of students. Just as there are different housing options, students may also choose from a variety of meal options. In choosing meal plans, it is important to put more weight on balanced and healthy meals.

Meal plans are usually mandatory for freshmen, so it pays to know your options. Before choosing a meal plan, determine how often you plan to avail of meals in the dining hall, which will depend on your class schedule. Also, consider if you have certain dietary restrictions or allergies. Your plans on how you will spend your weekends should also be taken into account when choosing your meal plan.

In most colleges, your meal plan balance is loaded onto your ID card or meal card, which you swipe each time you avail of a meal.

  • Per Meal/Swipe Plan. This type of meal plan provides students with meal passes for a certain number of meals per day, week, or semester. You may use your meal pass for a four-course meal, or for a bowl of cereal, and it would cost the same.
  • Point Plan. At the beginning of the semester, students purchase meal points. As they avail of meals from dining halls and other on-campus establishments, points will be deducted based on the cost of the meal purchased.

Some universities design meal plans based on the frequency of meals to administer dining dollars or points. Some examples include:

  • Standard Meal Plan. This basic plan assumes that the student will eat in a dining facility at least twice a day.
  • Minimal Meal Plan. For students who often eat in their rooms, or usually are out of school during weekends, this is the ideal plan.
  • Plus Meal Plan. This plan usually offers at least 20 meals per week and is ideal for students that plan to eat inside the campus three square meals a day.
  • Off-Campus or Community Meal Plan. This plan is designed for students and professors that avail of meals inside the campus from time to time.

Room and board inclusions may appear to be insignificant at first, but carefully evaluating and comparing the fine print of each option could lead to significant dollar savings, and, therefore, lessen the need for additional financing.

Room and Board 1

The Cost of Room and Board in College

According to recent student housing statistics, the average cost of room and board is $49,480 for a full four years of college. The cost of room and board varies from state to state, with the most expensive rates in Hawaii at an average of $15,358 annually and the cheapest in Oklahoma at an average of $9,427 per year.

Section 472 of the Higher Education Act lists the allowable costs or cost of attendance (COA) for all students. This law specifies the types of costs included in the COA, but the appropriate and reasonable amounts for each eligible student are determined by the institution based on a set of criteria.

The COA includes tuition and fees, allowance for books, supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous personal expenses, allowance for room and board, and other provisions as needed by the student. All schools include an allowance for room and board in their COA which is based on the amount reasonably incurred by each type of student (Federal Student Aid, 2021).

For the 2021-2022 academic year, the average room and board in private colleges costs $13,620, and $11,950 in public colleges. The total cost of room and board will depend on the type of campus housing and the food plans that you choose. In public colleges, the cost of room and board is usually the same for in-state and out-of-state students.

Some colleges also provide room and board estimates for living off-campus, and also room and board allowances for students living at home. For instance, the University of Maryland provides estimated costs for undergraduate students living with parents.

While colleges usually provide the cost of room and board combined, data from The College Board and National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) reflect that of the total room and board cost, the cost of meals is typically around 36%, and room cost is at 64%. For example, based on data from The College Board, the average cost of room and board for public four-year colleges is $11,950. From this figure, we can estimate that the average room cost per academic year is $7,648 and board cost is $4,302.

To put the average room and board fee in context, based on 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, the average, single American spends $386.92 per month on food or $4,643.04 annually. This is money spent on groceries, which means that cooking will be required most of the time. College room and board fees charge approximately $4,302 per year or $430.2 per month. For room cost, the average studio apartment rental in the U.S. in 2021 is $929 per month, while the average cost of a shared dorm room is $764.8 per month.

Off-campus living may be considered more affordable if the expenses on food and rental can be split with roommates. This would entail additional responsibility, however, as you would have to pay separately for utilities and coordinate with the landlord for housing concerns.

Is the cost of room and board influenced by the location of my school?

Location definitely influences market value. In assessing the cost-effectiveness of availing room and board within campus compared to its cost off-campus, it is important to consider the cost of living in the area where your college is located. The cost of living has an effect on rental prices and food costs. Thus, prior to making a comparison, determine the cost of living. This also means that your room and board cost will be lower if you choose a college that is not within an area that dictates a high cost of living.

Is it always cheaper to live off-campus?

In general, paying for room and board typically costs higher than cooking your own meals and sharing an apartment with other students. Living on-campus, however, provides advantages in terms of having easy access to facilities that can help you in your studies, including campus activities. Living with fellow students can also help you adjust to college life.

Some colleges require new students to live on campus, especially if they are not local. Colleges make this mandatory for students to have an easier time transitioning into life on campus and adapt to college life. Students are also encouraged to live on campus for them to integrate easily with the school community and also to engage in social activities.

Students that live on campus are also more inclined to join clubs and study groups. Living on campus also eliminates transportation issues that could hinder your ability to attend classes. In availing of room and board inside the campus, you are paying a premium for convenience.

Compared to students that live on campus, students that live off-campus also pay for utilities, which are often bundled with the on-campus room and board costs. Some schools even provide cleaning staff and laundry services for the student living on-campus, which enables the student to focus on his or her academics while in college.

Source: National Center for Education Statistics

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Paying for College Room and Board

Is room and board included in tuition? No. In fact, second to tuition, room and board costs make up a large portion of the total overall cost of college attendance. The high cost of room and board makes students and parents think that there is no way they can afford college. Paterson (2018) stipulates this in “The Cost Conundrum: It Might Be More about the Mystery than the Money.” Published in the Journal of College Admission, the author discovered that “there is often a lot of confusion about college costs, and while it might simply complicate the selection process for some students or disappoint others because a school is out of reach financially, it also may cause some to make a bad decision about enrollment or even be forced to drop out. Some underestimate the cost of college, but just as often students believe they can’t attend a school for which they may be eligible.”

There are different types of financial aids available that cover the cost of room and board in college. Aside from grants, scholarships, and loans, students may also take on part-time jobs while enrolled in college.


Every student that applies for aid through filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) may qualify for assistance in paying room and board as part of COA. Financial aid is meant to cover the cost of attending college. With this, a lot of students ask, “Does FAFSA cover off-campus housing?”

Yes, your financial aid can cover both on-campus and off-campus housing. There are ways to use some of your financial assistance for housing. It is important to keep track of your aid so you can monitor where your funds are going and how much is left for other expenses. You may consult with the financial aid office on how to avail of financial assistance for room and board fees.

Grants and Scholarships

In the event that the financial aid you receive is not enough to cover room and board, you may appeal to your school’s financial aid office. Most of the time, students that still need assistance may qualify for additional support through grants and scholarships. These funds may come from the institution, state funds, or federal funds.

Work-Study Programs

The work-study program provides part-time work opportunities for students that need additional financing to cover college costs. Most colleges offer work-study opportunities inside and even outside the campus.

Federal Student Loans

Taking out a loan is another option to cover room and board costs. Keep in mind, however, that loans accrue interest so borrow only what you need. These types of loans are issued by the federal government, which usually have low-interest rates and flexible payment options.

The 529 Plan

Check if you have a 529 plan. The 529 plan may also be used to pay for room and board. The 529 plan is a tax-advantaged plan that is availed by parents to save for future education expenses, which means that this is availed before you enter college. In the 529 college savings plan, investments grow tax-deferred and are also not taxed when withdrawn to fund qualified education expenses, including room and board costs. The 529 savings plan can also be used to pay for student loans.

Room and Board 2

Now You Can Choose Your Room and Board Wisely

College room and board costs vary from state to state. They can also depend on the type of school—student housing of private four-year colleges typically costs higher than public four-year universities. The essential furnishings are included in student housing, room rates differ when the student chooses between single or double occupancy, or to have a private bath than the communal type. Meal plans also vary depending on the frequency of availing on-campus meals, and the type of meals that cater to specific dietary requirements.

Student housing trends have evolved through the years, influencing the provision of food and shelter to college students. As a result, the cost of room and board has also steadily increased. The important points mentioned in this article aim to help you make wise choices because every dollar counts. In choosing where to live and how you will eat in college, keep in mind that more than the food and shelter, you are there to learn, gain valuable experience, and become part of the campus community.

College student housing is an important pillar in the transformation of every student to adulthood. Included in room and board is the experience that teaches every student respect, camaraderie, and responsibility. This is a big help to many learners, especially impoverished students in American schools.



Find The Best Degree Match

Get personalized degree recommendations that will help you find a program that will match your goals and dreams.

The website Research.com is funded by advertising. All school search, finder, and match results, as well as featured or trusted partner programs, are for schools who pay us. Our school rankings, resource guides, or any other editorially impartial content on our website are unaffected by the compensation we receive.

Find The Best Degree Match

Get personalized degree recommendations that will help you find a program that will match your goals and dreams.

The website Research.com is funded by advertising. All school search, finder, and match results, as well as featured or trusted partner programs, are for schools who pay us. Our school rankings, resource guides, or any other editorially impartial content on our website are unaffected by the compensation we receive.