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Living off-campus: is it really worth it?

Housing is arguably one of the more universal topics of discussion that have made their way to the typical American college campus. It’s often the last of what I’ve come to consider the Four Cardinal Pleasantries one will likely resort to when making a new acquaintance: 1) What is your name? 2) Where are you from? 3) What are you studying? 4) Where are you living?

In any case, one would do well to prepare their future accommodations in a timely manner, as well as be familiar with the full breadth of options that both the Department of Community Living on campus and the privately operating landlords of Waltham might have to offer. Considering how I’ve personally resided in a Waltham apartment for the past few months, I’d like to offer a perspective on what might range from the final recourse of action for some people, to an unhesitating immediate first choice for other, particularly veteran and/or adventurous folk: the decision to live off campus.

Of course, there are virtues and shortcomings alike related to the three varieties of habitation available to students: home (commuting), on-campus and off-campus. This article, however, is but a sample of one junior’s experiences living with four other people about a 12 minute walk from Brandeis.

One thought that frequently lingers in the heads of people who consider off-campus housing is the matter of convenience, since someone who lives off campus will inevitably be physically situated somewhere farther from Brandeis than anyone living on campus would. In other words, it’s getting used to shuttling back and forth between the university and home every day, whether it be by car, bicycle or the time-tested tradition of bipedal translation.

Maybe I’m just lazy, but let me tell you: It can be a pain when inclement weather strikes or one happens to forget their notebook or computer at Brandeis and has to walk back at 10 p.m. in 10 degree weather so they can finish their homework.

My advice, should the reader decide to live off campus, is to invest in a luxury that I am unfortunately unable to enjoy due to an acute sense of filial obedience: a bicycle. I’m afraid my mother fears that I may prove too weak to resist the temptation to perform sick flips in the middle of the street and then be severely injured by a passing driver. Consequently, I am forbidden from operating a bicycle in Waltham.

One of the most important things that people occasionally forget to take into account, however, are the somewhat weighty variables of an apartment’s actual habitability and the personalities of one’s housemates. Truth be told, though my apartment is actually quite run-down in comparison to most I’ve visited, I’m nonetheless satisfied because it provides me a reliable place to bathe, sleep and sometimes cook. My room is pretty clean, the bathroom is OK and my housemates tend to clean up after themselves in the kitchen. One couldn’t really ask for much more.

However, one ought to also be aware of certain complications that will inevitably arise during one’s stay in one of these apartments, whether they be interpersonal, mechanical or biological. In my own experiences, these complications have taken the forms of randomly hurt feelings, clogged toilets and the occasional mouse. For example, I once raised my voice at one of my housemates for putting a piece of pizza directly into the microwave without a plate.

Essentially, it is in one’s best interest to make sure their future residence is actually livable and whether they are actually cool with their roommates before deciding to move into an apartment for approximately nine months.

However, I suppose the most prominently discussed issue on the topic of living off-campus would be its cost relative to commuting or living on-campus. Speaking from the shoes of someone who benefits rather handsomely from the largesse of Brandeis’ financial aid program, I can say living off campus has saved me… only a modest amount of money.

For those unfamiliar with the way housing financial aid (not overall, the financial aid office provides estimates) works, a rough approximation would be that one would normally receive no housing financial aid should they decide to commute, a generous allowance if they decide to live on-campus and a fraction of the award they’d otherwise receive on-campus if they instead decide to live off-campus. In other words, commuters get none, on-campus students get a bunch and off-campus kids get a smaller bunch.

Personally, my own reward was more or less slashed in half when I announced my intention to live off-campus. Now, don’t get me wrong; off-campus apartments are typically a couple thousand dollars cheaper than the school’s residence halls. The typical price ranges from around $5,400-$7,200 a year for Waltham apartments reasonably close to Brandeis, while the average on-campus housing arrangement costs around $8,000 to $10,000 per year.

Another factor that significantly impacts the quantity of resources one will expend on their college education is food. There is one completely unambiguous benefit I can claim lies with living off campus: the freedom to slough off the mandatory on-campus meal plans. As you might have heard from others, most of the mandatory meal plans are specifically tailored to rip you off. For example, I once compared the price per meal of the 80-block meal plan to the price per meal of the voluntary 90-block meal plan. Taking into account the number of points allotted to a customer, someone who bought the 80-block meal plan would essentially pay around $19.80 per meal, whereas someone on the 90-block plan would pay around $8.75. Anyone who would hypothetically purchase the 80-block meal plan would end up saving a substantial sum of money simply using cash instead.

So it all sounds like it kind of balances out, right? You get less financial aid (if you get any at all), but the raw amount of cash you pay is less and you get to avoid having your bank account chokeslammed into the slavering jaws of Brandeis mandatory dining services. Maybe you have to walk a little and maybe there’s a colorful mold growing near the foot of your bed, but you’ve saved a few thousand dollars and haven’t really had to put any effort in at all setting yourself up here.

There’s more to it than that.

You need to find subletters for the summer, since a lease typically lasts for a year—specifically, from the beginning of one summer to the next. Due to the competitive nature of the subleasing scene during the summer, since there are few students and many accommodations available, you’d better bet you’re not going to be able to charge the subletters full-price either.

However, the toils of summer subletting and the subsidies one typically needs to pay for their subletters are stories for another time. Suffice to say, preparing things for subletters and keeping them happy can be an ordeal.

Overall, living off-campus, while undoubtedly somewhat cheaper, hasn’t exactly proved to be that much noticeably cheaper or awesome than living on-campus in my experience. I think it’s fine, but if one were to give me the choice of living on-campus, off-campus or commuting, I would have to say the pros and cons of living in on or off-campus are arguably negligible. Perhaps it might be different for the reader; if they are interested, the financial aid office is ready to give estimates at any reasonable hour of the week.

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