What is the Cost of Attendance?


One of the most confusing parts about going to college is figuring out what it’s going to cost. From the price of each college credit to meal plans, there are a lot of expenses to think about.

You may have heard about your school’s cost of attendance, but when it comes time to pay, what does that mean? Is the cost of attendance the same for everyone? Do you have to pay all that…and at once? Are there hidden costs?

These are all good questions, so let’s talk about how the official cost of attendance (COA) is different than your actual cost to attend. Later, we’ll take a look at how the COA is used to determine your financial aid offer.

What is the Cost of Attendance (COA)?

Federal law requires all schools to calculate an estimated average COA for one academic year. So, the COA is not the actual price you will pay, it is an estimate of what the school might cost.

Many schools post the COA on their website, but you may have to request one directly from the school. You will also encounter the COA on your Financial Aid Award Letter – it’s typically the largest figure on there.

COAs vary by school and can be different for each academic year. But COAs include the same categories.  They can be separated into two groups: direct and indirect costs.

Direct Costs

Direct costs are educational costs that are due directly to your school.

Tuition and fees. “Tuition” is the actual cost of faculty instruction and typically depends on how many credits you’re taking. If you are full-time, you will be charged a full tuition amount and that is what is included in the COA. If you are part-time, you will likely be charged per credit hour and your COA will be adjusted based on the total number of credits taken. The “fees” you pay may go to support campus facilities such as the gym or library. If you’re going to a public school, you will notice there’s in-state tuition and out-of-state tuition, which is usually higher.

Room and board. “Room” is the average cost to live in the dorms, and “board” is the average cost of the meal plan. Some schools may post an average room and board, or “rent” and “food” for living off-campus. If you’re living off-campus, you do not pay room and board directly to the school; rather, these would be indirect costs that you will pay directly to a landlord and the grocery store or restaurants for food costs.

Indirect Costs

Indirect costs are costs that your school does not charge. Rather, they are estimates of additional educational costs beyond what you will pay directly to your school.

Books and supplies. Schools usually base the price of textbooks on an average of books sold at the college bookstore. The actual cost can vary widely among academic majors. For example, an English major may have more book expenses than say a computer science major. But a computer science major may have more technology-related expenses than someone studying psychology.

Transportation. This is usually an average of students’ costs to get to and from school. Transportation costs can vary widely as the COA considers students who must fly to school as well as those who commute and must park every day. Keep in mind this is an estimate for two or three trips to and from school each year. This does not include additional trips home or to another city.

Living expenses. There are some of the less obvious costs of going to college such as entertainment, laundry, or your cell phone bill.

The COA Is Not the Same as Your Bill

The official COA is different than what you will end up paying because the COA is just an average of what your school could cost. Your actual school costs may be more, or they may be less.

For example, at most schools, it will cost more to choose a single room dorm over having roommates, or you could save by living with roommates off-campus (or living at home). Choosing a more comprehensive meal plan than the average could increase costs while cooking at home and taking a smaller meal plan could save you money. Similarly, if you take a course that requires specific equipment or software, you could pay more, but if you take a course where you can borrow all of the supplies, you may end up paying less.

The important thing to remember is that you won’t receive one bill that covers everything. Your school will bill you for direct expenses such as tuition, dorm costs, and dining hall meal plans, but costs such as books, transportation, and other expenses will be separate.

How the COA Affects Your Financial Aid

Many students pay less than the COA to attend school. This is because the financial aid award you are offered is based on your school’s COA. This financial aid could come in the form of loans (subsidized or unsubsidized), scholarships, grants, or Federal Work Study.

Your financial aid is calculated by subtracting your Expected Family Contribution (or EFC) from the school’s COA. Your EFC is the cost the government expects your family to contribute to your college education. It is determined by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which becomes available every October.

For example, if your school’s COA is $35,000 and your EFC is $10,000, you qualify for $25,000 in federal aid. If your school’s COA is $15,000 and your EFC is $10,000, you qualify for $5,000 in federal aid. But just because you qualify for a certain amount does not mean you will be awarded that amount. Each school has its own funding levels available, so the amount you are awarded will differ.

You may be concerned because your school of choice didn’t offer enough in their federal financial aid package for you to cover costs. But there are still options. Each college may also have institutional grants and scholarships for which you can apply for. Be sure you know what each school requires to be considered for these funding sources. Beyond that funding, you can also apply for outside scholarships and consider using a private student loan to fill the gap.

Learn more about how families are paying for college.


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