If your child is one of the more than 1.5 million full-time undergraduates headed off to college for the first time this fall, you're probably anxious about all the expenses, praying that your son or daughter will stay safe and out of trouble and perhaps wondering whether you should buy dorm insurance for the veritable electronics store of possessions that your kid is taking along.

At risk are not just the essentials of higher education, such as $200 to $1,600 laptops, $300 to $700 smartphones, and $200 to $700 wireless speakers. The accoutrements of your student's extracurricular life, including bicycles, sports equipment, musical instruments, and digital cameras, cost a pretty penny to replace, too.

But before you plunk down your money for dorm insurance, you should assess the risks and know your options. (Visit our Insurance Center for information on other kinds of insurance.)

What's the Threat?

You might think your kid's dormitory room is a crime scene just waiting to be cordoned off with police tape. Valuables are strewn all over in plain sight. Randomly assigned roommates can be true-blue to klepto. New "friends" and strangers constantly drift in and out. And the owners of all this stuff are always carelessly rushing off to join a late class, catching a ride with friends, or meeting a new love interest. 

But according to FBI crime statistics, colleges are often, well, a rather collegial environment. Overall, we calculate a property crime rate of 970 burglaries and larceny thefts per 100,000 students enrolled at U.S. institutions of higher learning. That's only about one-third of the 2,731 property crime incidents per 100,000 people outside the ivy covered halls. (Share these 3 easy ways to prevent theft on campus with your kid.)

However, these rates vary widely by specific school. The University of California at San Francisco had the highest rate in 2013, according to FBI data. Its 394 property crimes for a student body of just 3,137. Extrapolate that to 100,000 students and it works out to 12,560 crimes.

By contrast, the single larceny theft that same year at the small, 1,897-student University of Minnesota Morris campus, made for a low property crime rate of only 53 per 100,000.

You can assess the threat by finding the detailed crime statistics at your child's school on the latest FBI tally for colleges and universities. On that list, burglary and larceny theft combine to make up the overall property crime category.

You can further refine your analysis using the Campus Safety & Security data analysis tool provided by the U.S. Dept. of Education. We used aggregated data from that source to determine that, nationally, 91 percent of property crimes occur on-campus.

About half of the on-campus incidents took place in the residence halls, where student ID cards are typically required to get in. The rest occurred in the more public spaces of the campus, where anyone from the surrounding community, including professional thieves, has access.

Finally, size up the level of maturity and responsibility your child will bring to the more public environment of campus living. Is she too trusting of people or street smart? Careless with belongings or mindful of their value? An easy mark or a hard target? 

Insurance Options

If you've concluded that your kid's belongings face greater risk than you're comfortable with, tote up the cost of replacing the valuables and shop for the best price from among these options:

  • Your homeowners policy will typically cover your offspring while they're living in an on-campus residence at no extra cost. But the coverage is usually only 10 percent of your limit on the contents of your home. So if your home contents is protected for up to $50,000 in losses, your student's belongings are only covered for up to $5,000. 
  • A renters policy costing $15 to $30 a month will be necessary if your child lives in an apartment off-campus, because your homeowners insurance won't extend there. Premiums vary based on the amount of coverage needed. 
  • A dorm insurance policy may be your best option, because deductibles are as low as $25, vs. $500 or more on your homeowners policy, and your home coverage should really be reserved for bigger claims involving damage to the structure and contents, not smaller losses like a purloined computer. A $5,000 policy with a $25 deductible might cost $140 per year. Two companies in this field and A+ rated by the Better Business Bureau are CSI Insurance Agency and National Student Services, Inc.
  • A homeowners policy "floater" or endorsement is necessary if you want to make sure very high value possessions are covered. But honestly, expensive jewelry and watches or high-end professional-grade photographic equipment should be kept home or truly secured under lock and key at school.