An interesting question is floating around the heads of many parents of college students across the country – Rather than waste money on rent each semester, should we invest in off-campus real estate?

Sure the kid has picked out a great 4 -year university, where he will surely make you proud, get decent grades and win every beer pong tournament he enters. But on top of that higher-than-ever tuition, coupled with a less robust than usual student loan market, will the parents be forking over big dough just so Junior can have a place to lay his head each night?

CNBC’s Carmen Wong Ulrich says if you play your cards smart you could actually make some money with this little transaction.

The key is figuring out if the college is in an area where it would make more sense to buy an off-campus house/apartment rather than pay for dorm costs or off-campus rent. And for all you college punks out there, I would suggest bringing up this issue with the parentals ASAP, cuz of course there is nothing cooler than having your own off-campus house where the landlord won’t evict you if you break a window (Thanks Mom and Dad!).

But how will you know if State U is the kind of place where the current real estate market will work in your favor?

Ulrich did a little interview yesterday on CNBC (watch the video here), where she explained how the best places to buy are urban/metropolitan areas that have a good chance of being rented out once Sonny graduates in 4-8 years (They’re calling the segment “Campus Cribs”, showing off how hip and edgy they are over at CNBC these days).

Now, I know what you’re thinking, obviously if you can get a place in New York City or Boston, that’s a no-brainer for appreciating real estate values. But also take into account places like Austin TX, Dallas TX, Baton Rouge LA, Chapel Hill NC, Rochester NY and Syracuse NY. These cities house major universities but also qualify as metropolitan areas off the beaten path with good value.

For some more in-depth analysis check out this downloadable PDF report from the Center for Economic and Policy Research on the cost of renting vs. buying in hundreds of the country’s top real estate markets. Ulrich recommends doing plenty of research on your own using sites like Zillow and Trulia. And who wouldn’t believe the lovely Carmen Wong Ulrich? I mean come on, she’s getting her own show that starts on Monday night. I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about a personal finance show on TV. Here’s hoping it isn’t horrible! Fear not, it can’t be any worse than Donny Deutsch.

Also, check out the handy little ‘rule’ we picked up when trying to decide if now is the time to buy or rent.

Anyone thinking of being the landlord to your son or daughter’s college house? Let us know how and why in the comments section.

CNBC: Campus Cribs: Better To Rent or Buy?, July 31, 2008