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To dorm or not to dorm: The pros and cons of off-campus housing

STUDENT SURVIVAL GUIDE '10: Living Off Campus 

To dorm or not to dorm: The pros and cons of off-campus housing

BY NICK STATT

Before Adrienne Hdolwerski finished her sophomore year at the University of Rochester, she chose not to lay down her room deposit to ensure her on-campus housing for the following semester. With the freedom of living on her own, and the thousands of dollars in savings that wouldn't be put toward UR's high-end housing, Hdolwerksi made what any optimistic college student would consider a step toward a promising junior year. But after two semesters and a number of tumultuous housing transitions, Hdolweski is moving back on campus for her senior year.

            It wasn't that Hdolweski wasn't ready to live off campus. Rather, she just didn't think the trade-off was worthwhile. "I definitely felt I had to do things to stay in touch with people who live on campus. I had to go out of my way to make sure I stayed a part of the campus community," she says. Despite saving the money, the true "college experience" was too valuable and fleeting for her to pass up.

            If you're entering your freshman year of college, you're going to hear the phrase, "College is what you make it," enough times to recount it in your sleep. But it's oft repeated for a reason: things that once seemed insignificant can make or break your next four (or more) years. What you should be eating, or how your living situation will affect your schoolwork, social life, or bank account, are decisions that now rest completely in your hands. Housing is one of the most influential aspects of the college experience because it can play a serious factor in your enjoyment of anything from a semester to your entire undergraduate career.

            Rochester is unique, because while it's not a major city, it's large enough to offer housing options that can be surprisingly affordable when compared to some of the room and board figures of local colleges and universities (see sidebar for details). However, the decision to move off-campus means forfeiting a close-knit social environment, a comfortable meal plan, and the proximity to campus buildings for the freedom of living on your own and potentially saving quite a bit of money.

While it's true that private schools generally offer better living arrangements, and subsequently entail more expensive living costs, the wide array of schools in the greater Rochester area run the full spectrum of housing costs. Roberts Wesleyan College comes in at the bottom end with an estimated room and board cost of $8,826 for the 2010-2011 academic year, whereas UR is the highest with an estimated yearly cost of $11,640, assuming you have a double room and the average meal plan.

            For Hdolwerski, finances were not the primary issue. Although UR has the highest per year housing cost of all the Rochester schools, it is outfitted with an expansive set of on-campus apartment complexes and alternative housing options. It is also the only Rochester school with an official Office of Off Campus Living, which monitors a community-styled database that allows tenants and landlords to create accounts and seek each other out, but does not inspect properties, according to Off Campus Coordinator Keisha Brookins.

            Hdolwerski admits that she initially moved off campus because she simply had the opportunity. At UR, you're restricted to on-campus living your first two years. So when junior year rolled around, Hdolwerski left her comfortable housing in Crosby Hall, but ended up regretting the decision. "If I hadn't moved off campus then, I probably never would have moved off at all," she says.

            After moving twice and ending up as a tenant in an apartment building full of strangers, Hdolwerski recounts the missteps she took. "When I moved out of that apartment, I wish I could have moved on campus but, I couldn't," she says. With a full year off campus that involved commuting in the harsh Rochester winter and having to spend an extra hour every morning just to get class on time, Hdolwerski came out a more experienced student who had discovered her personal housing preferences.

For Pat Prestemon, a SUNY Brockport student entering his junior year, deciding to live off campus was less complicated. Brockport's room and board totals just under $10,000 per year, and while Prestemon chose an apartment that was only slightly less expensive, he made it clear why his choice was better for him.

            "I'm getting more for the price, so it's far less expensive if you think about it that way," says Prestemon, who will start his first year off campus this fall. And he raises a good point: even if your off-campus housing option costs the same as your on-campus alternative, living on your own can be potentially more rewarding than dorm life. For one, you answer to no one but your landlord. And secondly, if you look hard enough, or just get plain lucky, you can land yourself your own bedroom.

            Prestemon saw off-campus living as an obvious transition from a cramped double room, watchful RAs, and strict housing contract rules to his very own room, in an apartment with roommates of his choice, and not a single living edict that he doesn't set himself.

Some students find themselves in more binding situations that take luck and some determination to get out of. Katie Ernst, who will be a senior at Eastman School of Music this fall, found herself only two-thirds of the way through the school's three-year housing contract when she received great news: she had been one of only a small percentage of juniors who won ESM's housing lottery, and was freed from the school's mandatory on-campus requirement.

            Although ESM gives each of its sophomores the option of a single, the three-year housing contract can become a serious dilemma for seniors lacking in life experience. "It was ideal to get off campus when I did, because I feel like getting an apartment for the first time as a senior in college, and realizing you have to pay bills, is bad," Ernst says. "It's better to get used to that early instead of being on your way out."

            The other changes to Ernst's life after moving off campus were no minor perks. "Whatever they said was for housing was what I figured was the cost of living in Rochester," she says. "Then when I found out how much less it would be to live off campus...I went from a small room with a shared bathroom to a nice spacious two bedroom for about half the price."

            Considering the low cost of housing near downtown Rochester, and the fact that Eastman sports a room and board cost almost identical to that of its mother school, UR, Ernst and many fellow students jump at the opportunity to nab their own downtown place.

While different students have widely varying opinions and experiences concerning residential life, most seem to agree on one thing: living on campus when you're a freshman, and possibly even a sophomore, is a necessity if you can afford it. Not only will it help you figure out your own personal stance on residential living, but it will also provide the indispensable social benefits of a campus community that is nearly impossible to find elsewhere.

            "I don't think that as a 17 or 18 year old kid you are ready to find a roommate and deal with all of those things. I think you're too young for that," Ernst says. "To get acquainted with the city and the people you are going to be around...it helps to be on campus."

            Prestemon says he had a very average, yet still positive, experience living on campus that allowed him to make the friends he'll be living with next year. "If you get overwhelmed by everything, you have more safety than if you're living off campus. You have a little more support," he says.

            "It's imperative when you're a freshman. You have to live on campus," Hdolwerski says. "Even people who are from Rochester, that have the option of living home, I would definitely say live on campus. It's part of the experience of being at college."

In This Guide...

  • To dorm or not to dorm: The pros and cons of off-campus housing

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