Why You Should Care About Your College’s Cost of Attendance

When you apply for financial aid, the amount you qualify for is largely based on the college’s cost of attendance. Yet, few people understand what this important figure really means.

Before accepting an offer, make sure you know what the cost of attendance means, how it’s calculated, and how financial aid offices use it to determine your student aid offer.

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Cost of attendance definition

What is cost of attendance, exactly? The cost of attendance, or COA, is a figure calculated by financial aid offices that represents the average cost of attending their college.

As you know, costs vary widely depending on whether you’re going to a community college, state college, or private college. No matter where you’re going, though, the cost of attendance should not be confused with what you are actually going to pay for college.

What you end up paying out-of-pocket will depend on how much financial aid you get first. That’s where COA comes into play — it’s one of four factors used by financial aid offices to determine your financial aid eligibility.

Expenses included in COA

While the cost will vary from school to school, the categories of school expenses included in COA are pretty much the same:

  • Tuition and fees.
    Types of fees may include activity fees (for maintaining the student center, library, and on-campus gym), health fees (for visits to the campus health center), counseling fees (for career and general guidance), parking fees, enrollment fees, technology fees (for computer labs), and “green” fees (for energy-related expenses).
  • Room and board.
    This covers the cost of housing and food, whether you live on-campus or off. That said, your off-campus allowance will be limited, meaning it won’t automatically cover whatever you choose to spend on rent or food. If you go over the allowance, the difference will have to come out of your pocket.
  • Books, supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous expenses.
    The cost of buying your own personal computer or printer may be included in this category.
  • Childcare or other dependent care.
    This cost allowance is decided on a case-by-case basis.
  • Disability expenses.
    This is another cost allowance decided on by a case-by-case basis.
  • Studying abroad.
    First, the program has to be eligible. If it’s approved, the cost allowance is limited to “reasonable” expenses.

Your cost of attendance is calculated by adding all of these qualifying expenses together. Most schools calculate this figure based on the cost of attending a fall and spring semester. However, the COA timeframe may be longer for certain certification programs.

It’s also worth noting that the cost of attendance is generally higher for graduate students.

There is one circumstance in which this list of included expenses will vary. If you are attending school less than half-time, the cost of attendance may or may not include room and board, for example.

Expenses not included in COA

Though the cost of attendance includes basic living expenses, including housing costs, food, and some personal expenses, it’s very limited. That means you’re not going to see your college incorporating any of the following types of cost into your COA:

  • Car payments or insurance (the COA allowance for transportation is limited to the cost of commuting and parking)
  • Credit card debt
  • A new wardrobe
  • Travel

If you budget right, you may have enough extra money here and there to pay a credit card bill or buy a new outfit. But if you have much more than that left over from your student loans, for example, then you’re probably borrowing too much and will pay the price later.

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How COA is used to determine financial need

Once your cost of attendance has been calculated by adding up all of the qualifying expenses together, it is then used by the financial aid office to determine your financial need.

Need-based aid

Cost of attendance – Expected family contribution = Need-based aid

It’s this figure — need-based aid — that determines how much you are eligible to receive in the form of Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), Federal Direct Subsidized Loans, and Federal Work-Study.

But the use of COA doesn’t end there. It’s also used to determine non-need-based aid.

Non-need-based aid

Cost of attendance – Financial aid already awarded (e.g. scholarships) = Non-need-based aid

Non-need-based aid determines your eligibility for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Federal PLUS Loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants.

Shopping around for the best COA

It’s a good thing to have your heart set on a specific school. But if the cost of attendance is too high, you may find that the financial aid offer doesn’t help enough to make it an affordable choice for you.

Keep your options open and shop around for the best deal. That doesn’t have to mean the cheapest option, but it can mean finding an affordable school that doesn’t break your bank for the next 10 to 20 years.

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