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International grad student accommodation

Katie Schenk - May 26, 2017

On-Campus or Off-Campus Housing – Which Is
Better for Grad Students

Every grad student needs to sleep somewhere. No matter how much time you plan to spend in the library, it’s just not an option.

But, international students are unlikely to know the nuances of the area. Is transport accessible (even in winter)? Is a neighbourhood safe? Are there other grad students living on campus? Is the rent reasonable? What should be included?

You’ll soon find that every university has a unique housing culture.

American and European housing norms

In the United States, many universities offer some on-campus accommodation. That’s true for undergrads as well as graduate students – international or otherwise. Some universities actually guarantee on-campus housing for certain groups of scholars, such as freshman and international students.

A few schools offer accommodation for the duration of a student's time on campus. Though the guaranteed spots tend to shrink in number as the level of education increases, the norm is there.

You'll usually find that schools, like Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburg, offer a range of accommodation from residence halls to apartments. And, if you’re really lucky, there are also a few off-campus apartments or flats subsidised by the school (Columbia University offers this).

By contrast, European universities don’t always provide housing for their students. If you’re studying at INSEAD in France, for example, you won’t find any on-campus housing. It’s normal for programmes to offer lists of off-campus housing instead. However, many institutions take the time to check references for these independent providers.

The best accommodation isn't always obvious

When you have a choice between on-campus and off-campus housing, you may need to do more research than you suspect. While the benefits and drawbacks are more or less obvious, the costs aren’t.

Benefits of on-campus accommodation

  • Subsidised housing costs, set fees during academic year
  • Often combined with cafeteria or dining plans
  • Reduced transportation costsEasy access to university resources

And some drawbacks

  • Housing is typically small, and bathrooms may be shared
  • May be sharing with undergrads or only international students
  • Getting off campus may be difficult or expensive
  • The lack of independence isn’t for everyone (no facilities for cooking, quiet hours, etc.)

Benefits of off-campus accommodation

  • Easier integration into the host country culture
  • Freedom to prepare meals and have friends over with larger spaces
  • Choose your roommates or to live on your own

And some drawbacks

  • Usually more expensive than university rooms
  • Increased transportation costs
  • Safety and security are your responsibility
  • Expect to pay for water, electricity, Internet, and more

International student housing: costs versus space

Whether you pursue on-campus or off-campus housing, be wary of the costs either way. Many universities offer an idea of on and off-campus housing prices, but they’re not always accurate. There are also housing scams taking advantage of international (and out-of-town) students. 

Take time to investigate when compiling your budget and applying for financing. A few thousand dollars that crop up at the last minute could mean a couple of hungry months – or forfeiting an excursion that could make your career.

You’ll also find that every university provides information for on and off-campus housing options (such as MIT provides). In some cases, there is a dedicated office (as you’ll find at Oxford).

For many international students, it all comes down to cost. A year or two without substantial income demands a tight budget. And, if you’re going to skimp somewhere, smaller accommodation is probably a good idea. This is especially true if you’re studying in Europe or Asia. Space is limited in Europe in the best of circumstances, and you won’t need much while studying. Many international students find they don’t spend as much time at home as they usually would.

Apply early for international student housing

On-campus housing fills up fast. At some programmes, you need to have early admittance to get into college residence halls. Cambridge’s Judge School of Business is just one of these MBA programmes, though potentially one of the more strict due to the limited amount of housing available.

Even students that aren’t expecting to live on campus will need to move quickly. The good places will be leased quickly, especially those that offer flexible terms (think less than one calendar year rental, fully furnished with options). That means international grad students need to begin looking at their housing options as soon as they submit their applications (or receive those coveted acceptance letters, depending on the programme).

Even if housing wasn’t an issue, early acceptance usually offers a better shot at bursaries and scholarships that cover accommodation costs.

Get in touch with college housing departments

Some colleges don’t offer any campus housing. Your only option is off-campus, locally owned accommodation. Even if you prefer to stay off-campus, getting in touch with the housing department is still a good idea. Colleges often make local deals – or at least have a list of connections you can contact.

The international student office will also know of opportunities outside of the information on the website. Additionally, it’s worth contacting students from your home country or national (or regional) MBA clubs. These resources often better understand your specific needs and the style of living that you’re accustomed to.

Wherever you live, going back to school means living on a budget – so don’t expect too much. Fortunately, you can always pop off to the library if you need a break. 


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