Understanding Cost of Attendance

cost of attendance

Understanding Cost of Attendance

Published February 11, 2021

cost of attendance

Choosing a college and budgeting to attend can be a daunting experience.

Luckily, most colleges provide a convenient, standardized way to help families through the process.

It’s known as COA or cost of attendance. 

What Is Cost of Attendance?

Cost of attendance (COA) is a college’s estimation of the expenses students will face in a single academic year.

In addition to helping potential students compare their options, this statistic is used by the colleges themselves to calculate financial aid, and by loan providers to determine how much they will lend.

For all these reasons, it’s important that students and their families understand how COA is calculated and the role it will play in their college financing journey.

What’s the Difference Between Tuition and Cost of Attendance?

You may have considered using tuition, or even room and board, to compare colleges, but these are only some of the costs to attend college. COA encompasses these expenses and many more.

Think of a college’s COA as its sticker price. In reality, loans, grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, and various other sources of funding mean that most students will never pay a full COA—at least not up front—but COA can still provide students and their parents with a useful starting point for financial planning.  

What Expenses Are Included in the Cost of Attendance?

COA includes both major expenses such as tuition and room and board, and the numerous minor expenses associated with textbooks, transportation, off-campus dining, technology (e.g. the price of a new laptop), and loan fees.

COA also includes estimated costs for childcare, disability accommodations, and study abroad programs students may wish to apply for.

The definition of COA is determined by federal law, so you should expect every college’s COA to contain roughly the same expenses, even if they vary greatly in dollar amount.

Consider these cost of attendance examples from popular US colleges and how they are broken down by individual expenses

  • University of California, LA – UCLA Cost of Attendance 
    • Tuition & Fees – $13,239 
    • Room & Meals – $17,599 
    • Books & Supplies – $1,314 
    • Transportation – $588 
    • Personal – $1,422 
    • Health Insurance – $2,605 
    • Nonresident Supplemental Tuition – $29,754 
    • ESTIMATED TOTAL: $66,521
  • University of Southern CaliforniaUSC Cost of Attendance 
    • Tuition – $59,260 
    • Fees – $1,015 
    • Housing – $9,327 
    • Dining/Meals – $6,110 
    • Books & Supplies – $1,200 
    • Personal & Miscellaneous – $1,598 
    • Transportation – $553 
    • ESTIMATED TOTAL: $79,063
  • New York UniversityNYU Cost of Attendance 
    • Tuition & Mandatory Fees – $54,880 
    • Room & Board – $19,244 
    • Estimated Total Direct Costs – $74,124 
    • Books & Supplies – $718 
    • Transportation – $1,110 
    • Personal Expenses – $2,790 
    • Estimated Total Indirect Costs – $4,618 
    • ESTIMATED TOTAL: $78,742
  • Arizona State UniversityASU Cost of Attendance (Downtown Phoenix) 
    • Base Tuition – $28,800 
    • Student-Initiated Fees – $628 
    • Undergraduate College Fees – $0-1,800 
    • Books – $1,000 
    • Supplies – $300 
    • Housing – $9,872 
    • Meals – $5,336 
    • Travel – $1,376 
    • Personal – $1,982 
    • Loan Fees – $72 
    • ESTIMATED TOTAL: $49,366–$51,166
  • Purdue Cost of Attendance
    • Tuition & Fees – $28,794 
    • Room & Board – $10,030 
    • Billed Expenses Subtotal – $38,824 
    • Books & Supplies – $1,000 
    • Transportation – $250 
    • Miscellaneous – $1,510 
    • Other Estimated Expenses Subtotal – $2,760 
    • ESTIMATED TOTAL: $41,584

How Is Cost of Attendance Calculated?

As you review the list of expenses included in a college’s COA, you might notice how they can vary between students. A first-year student living in an on-campus dormitory is unlikely to have the same expenses as a graduate student living 30 miles away from campus.

To account for this, colleges sometimes calculate multiple COAs for students based on their state of residence, housing situation, program, and academic status. 

COA calculations are usually presented in an itemized table format similar to budgets your family may have drawn up at home. Keep in mind that the standard COA college lists for the average student is just that—a standard.

The actual (net) price you and your child pay could (and usually does) differ from these standards by a significant margin.

Cost of Attendance and Financial Aid 

One reason to keep a close eye on the COA of colleges your child plans on applying to is the role COA plays in calculating financial aid.

You and your child may have already completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and received your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

EFC is the amount your family is estimated to be capable of paying for a single year of college instruction.

Colleges subtract a student’s EFC from their own COA to determine that student’s financial need. Bear in mind that financial need refers only to the amount of need-based aid a student is eligible for.

Students may have to seek non-need-based financial aid to close the gap between COA and EFC if their college savings, income, and need-based aid come up short.

A net price calculator can help you estimate the price you will actually pay for college based on COA, EFC, and other variables.

Every college that draws on federal financial aid must provide potential students with one of these tools, and they can be very helpful in peeling back a college’s sticker price to find a more realistic and personalized one; just be prepared to answer a long and detailed set of questions to get the most accurate cost for your child. 

Can I Borrow More Than the Cost of Attendance?

The shortest answer to the question of whether a student can borrow more than the COA is “no.”

Need-based financial aid, including subsidized federal loans, can’t exceed the difference between a student’s EFC and their college’s COA.

Additionally, non-need-based aid, including unsubsidized federal loans, can’t exceed the difference between other forms of aid the student has received (such as private scholarships and subsidized loans) and their college’s COA.

Private lending is generally subject to similar limits.

Imagine your child is an out-of-state student attending UCLA and they plan to spend freshman year in an on-campus dorm. UCLA estimates the COA to be $66,521. If your EFC is $14,000, your child is eligible for a maximum of $52,521 in need-based aid.

If they receive $6,000 in need-based aid and private scholarships, then they are eligible for a maximum of $60,521 in non-need-based aid. 

Cost of attendance is an invaluable tool when used in conjunction with a net price calculator to compare financial aid packages, affordability, and review all of the costs associated with a college education.    






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