Understanding the Cost of Attendance (COA): A Vital Tool for College Financial Planning

cost of attendance

Understanding the Cost of Attendance (COA): A Vital Tool for College Financial Planning

Published September 30, 2023

cost of attendance

Navigating college finances can be daunting. The “Cost of Attendance” (COA) is an essential tool, offering a comprehensive yet simplified view of yearly student expenses. Discover how this federally regulated metric can shape your plan to pay for college.

What Is the Cost of Attendance?

The “Cost of Attendance” (COA) is a comprehensive estimate of the total expenses students might incur in a single academic year at a college or university. The COA, set by federal guidelines, helps students and their families compare colleges. It also helps define financial aid packages. 

The COA encompasses more than just tuition and fees. It offers a holistic view of potential yearly expenses, including room and board, transportation, and textbooks. This helps students and families in creating a precise budget and evading unforeseen costs during the academic year.

Moreover, the COA is a critical component in defining financial aid packages and setting the framework for grants, scholarships, and loan limits. Colleges and lenders use it to formulate financial aid structures, thus acting as a crucial reference point in higher education financial planning.

It is vital to remember that the COA can vary significantly between colleges, influenced by factors such as geographical location and amenities offered. Often, the final amount paid by students is less than the projected COA, owing to financial aid and scholarships. Hence, understanding the COA can foster financially sound college planning, empowering students to make informed decisions.

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 of attending 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 upfront—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.

Cost of Attendance Examples

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

UCLA Cost of Attendance 

  • Tuition & Fees – $14,478 
  • Room & Meals – $17,148 
  • Books & Supplies – $1,574 
  • Transportation – $704 
  • Personal – $1,655 
  • Health Insurance – $2,958 
  • Nonresident Supplemental Tuition – $32,574 

ESTIMATED TOTAL: $71,091 for out-of-state

USC Cost of Attendance 

  • Tuition – $66,640 
  • Fees – $1,597 
  • Housing – $11,910 
  • Dining/Meals – $7,290 
  • Books & Supplies – $1,200 
  • Personal & Miscellaneous – $1,820 
  • Transportation – $464 


NYU Cost of Attendance 

  • Tuition & Mandatory Fees – $60,438 
  • Room & Board – $24,102 
  • Estimated Total Direct Costs – $84,540 
  • Books & Supplies – $1,494 
  • Transportation – $1,154 
  • Personal Expenses – $3,034 
  • Estimated Total Indirect Costs – $5,682 


Arizona State University (Phoenix) Cost of Attendance 

  • Base Tuition, Nonresident – $31,450 
  • Student-Initiated Fees – $743 
  • Undergraduate College Fees – $0-1,910 
  • Books and Supplies – $1,320 
  • Housing – $11,214 
  • Meals – $6,633 
  • Travel – $1,536 
  • Personal – $2,200 
  • Loan Fees – $72 

ESTIMATED TOTAL: $55,168-$57,078

Purdue University Cost of Attendance 

  • Tuition & Fees, Nonresident – $28,794 
  • Room & Board – $10,030 
  • Billed Expenses Subtotal – $38,824 
  • Books & Supplies – $1,010 
  • Transportation – $250 
  • Miscellaneous – $1,530 
  • Other Estimated Expenses Subtotal – $2,790 


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 and affordability and review all of the costs associated with a college education.

Cost of Attendance at Private Schools vs. Public Schools

The cost of attendance can vary significantly between private and public institutions. In this section, we delve into the disparities in COA, helping you make an informed choice based on your budget and educational goals.

Private School COA Factors

Consider these factors going into the cost of attendance at private colleges.

  • Higher Tuition Fees: Generally, private schools have higher tuition fees compared to public schools. The funds are primarily used to maintain a high standard of education, smaller class sizes, and superior amenities.
  • Resources & Facilities: Private institutions often provide students with exclusive opportunities such as access to extensive networks, research opportunities, and high-end facilities.
  • Generous Financial Aid Packages: Surprisingly, private schools sometimes offer more generous financial aid packages, including scholarships and grants, which can sometimes make the net cost comparable to public institutions. However, financial aid varies widely between schools, and private schools may be much more expensive in other cases. 
  • Smaller Class Sizes: Students at private schools often benefit from smaller class sizes, allowing for more personalized attention and opportunities to connect with faculty.

Public School COA Factors

  • Lower Tuition Fees: Public schools are generally more affordable, especially for in-state students, as they are subsidized by state governments.
  • Larger Student Body: Public schools often have a larger student body, offering a diverse and vibrant community experience.
  • Comprehensive Program Offerings: Public institutions typically offer a wide range of program options, catering to a diverse student population with varying interests and career goals.
  • In-State Tuition Benefits: Residents of the state where a public school is located often benefit from significantly reduced tuition fees, making it a cost-effective option.

How to Choose Between a Public School or Private School

When choosing between a private and a public school, it’s essential to look beyond just the sticker price. Consider factors like the availability of financial aid, the potential return on investment (ROI), and the opportunities offered by each institution. Moreover, remember that the best choice depends on your individual circumstances, including your academic needs, financial situation, and career aspirations.

To obtain a more nuanced understanding of the likely costs, prospective students should explore the net price calculators available on school websites. These tools provide a more accurate picture of the potential financial aid and actual costs that students may incur at different institutions.

By comprehending the nuanced differences in the cost of attendance between private and public schools, students can make an informed decision that aligns with their educational and financial goals.

How to Reduce Your College Costs

While colleges set a standard cost of attendance, there are still strategies you can employ to reduce your college expenses. Here are ways to cut your college costs.

Choose Affordable Housing and Meals

  • On-Campus Housing: Opt for economical housing options available on campus.
  • Off-Campus Living: Consider living off-campus where rent might be cheaper, and you have the option to cook at home, which can save considerably on meal costs.

Economize on Textbooks and Supplies

  • Used Textbooks: Save by buying used textbooks or renting them for the semester.
  • Library Resources: Utilize the library for resources instead of purchasing textbooks.
  • Sell Back: Sell your textbooks back at the end of the semester to recoup some costs.

Make Smart Transportation Choices

  • Public Transportation: Use public transportation, bike, or walk to campus to save on fuel and parking costs.
  • Carpooling: Consider carpooling with classmates to reduce transportation expenses.

Manage Personal Expenses Wisely

  • Budgeting: Create a budget to manage personal expenses and avoid unnecessary spending.
  • Student Discounts: Take advantage of student discounts for various products and services.
  • Scholarships and Financial Aid

  • Scholarships and Grants: Apply early and aggressively for scholarships and grants to reduce your tuition burden.
  • Work-Study Programs: Consider enrolling in federal work-study programs to earn money to cover educational expenses.

Accelerate Your Degree Completion

  • Increased Course Load: If possible, take a heavier course load to complete your degree in a shorter time, saving on housing and meal costs.
  • Community College Transfer: Start your education at a community college and then transfer credits to a 4-year institution to save on initial years of tuition.

Take Advantage of High School Programs

  • Dual Enrollment and AP Courses: Enroll in dual enrollment or AP courses during high school to earn college credits and reduce the number of courses required (and paid for) in college.
  • Participating in Paid Internships or Co-op Programs
  • Gain Experience: Join paid internship or co-operative education programs to gain experience and offset some college costs.

Negotiate Tuition Fees

  • Negotiation: In cases of significant changes in your financial circumstances, you might be able to negotiate tuition fees with your college.

Use Net Price Calculators

  • Accurate Estimates: Use net price calculators provided by colleges to get an accurate estimate of what you might actually need to pay, which sometimes might be lower than the stated cost of attendance.

Remember, it’s always beneficial to consult with the financial aid office at your chosen institution to explore all possibilities and receive personalized guidance. Employing a combination of these strategies can go a long way in making your college education more affordable.

Use R2C Insights to Compare COA

Road2College offers a college search and comparison tool called R2C Insights. It provides the cost of attendance for each college, making quick comparisons fast and easy. 

In addition, you can get personalized college recommendations and compare colleges using multiple data points, such as admission rates, majors, GPAs and test scores. Try it for free.

Other Articles You Might Like:

Common Data Set Ultimate Guide: Use It to Find the Right College

Understanding College Costs: The Role of the Net Price Calculator

7 Costly Mistakes About Paying for College




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