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What Is Cost of Attendance?

December 01, 2020 · 4 minute read

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What Is Cost of Attendance?

Unlike department store wares, colleges and universities don’t have price tags just hanging off them. In fact, finding the true cost of a college can be hard to find.

Students don’t have to wait for the bill to figure out how much school will cost. That’s where the cost of attendance (COA) comes in.

Read on to learn how to calculate cost of attendance, why it matters, and how it can inform financing an education.

What is the Cost of Attendance for College?

Simply put, the cost of attendance is the estimated amount it will cost for a student to attend a school.

According to the Department of Education, most two-year or four-year universities and colleges calculate cost of attendance by the year.

If a school doesn’t run on a traditional fall/spring semester schedule, the COA may not be calculated to reflect a calendar year.

Think of COA as a rough budget for the year. It includes tuition and expenses outside the classroom like food, transportation, and supplies.

The COA is only an estimated average based on previous student spending and estimates. Most colleges will provide multiple COAs based on different student scenarios, such as:

•   Part time student
•   Full time student
•   Off-campus living
•   On-campus living
•   Attending school with a dependent

The COA of a school might change from year to year. When trying to find a school’s cost, it’s important to have the most recent estimates.

What Does Cost of Attendance Include?

What’s included in a COA is defined by federal law. A college or university’s COA will include:

•   Tuition and fees. This includes additional expenses that could be required for a specific field of study, and fees associated with loans.
•   Books and Supplies. This might sound like a silly line item, but students spend $1,240 on average on books and supplies, a College Board survey shows. (That may include the cost of a computer used for study.)
•   Transportation. This estimate includes how much it would cost to travel back and forth from school, and in some cases, can average in the cost of keeping a car on campus (parking permits, etc).
•   Room and board. This estimates housing and food expenses. It will take into account if the student is living at home, on campus, or off campus. Additionally, this line in the COA estimates how much a student may spend on dining, often using the campus meal plan as a guide.
•   Personal expenses. While the university doesn’t include this on its official bill, the school will estimate the cost of personal care, such as clothing, entertainment, and haircuts.

Cost of attendance can include more specifics based on a student’s need. The COA should reflect a student’s planned education, whether that be part time, full time, or even correspondence based. COA estimates come both directly from the school and from market research and data, meaning the trends change each year.

Finding a School’s Cost of Attendance

Hunting down a university’s COA is an important first step in calculating the expenses around college and how to pay for it. Since legislation passed in 2011, it’s mandatory for U.S. two-year and four-year institutes to share the COA on their websites. That doesn’t mean it’s always easy to find.

One way to look for the COA online is to simply put “[NAME OF SCHOOL] + COST OF ATTENDANCE” into a search engine.

Or anyone can go the old-school route and call a college’s financial aid office to get the information over the phone.

A school will also include its cost of attendance on a student’s financial award letter.

Cost of Attendance and Net Price

Figuring out a school’s COA matters because it can help students figure out the net price they’ll pay for school. The net price is what a student will pay out of pocket to attend an institution. How does a student get from cost of attendance to net cost? Expected family contribution.

Expected family contribution is a number that a college or university uses to calculate a student’s expected amount of financial aid. The formula to calculate the expected family contribution is established by law and includes not only information provided on the FAFSA® but also:

•   Taxed and untaxed income
•   Assets
•   Benefits (e.g. Social Security, unemployment compensation)
•   Family size
•   Number of family members expected to attend higher education that year

Expected family contribution is neither the final amount a family or individual is expected to pay nor the exact amount of federal aid a student will get. It’s simply a calculation or estimate to help arrive at net cost.

Once a school has a student’s expected family contribution, it can determine net cost through these steps:

•   The school looks at a student’s individual COA, taking into account if they’ll attend classes full or part time and whether or not they’ll live on campus.

•   With financial information in hand, the school subtracts a student’s expected family contribution from the COA. The difference is the student’s financial need.

•   That financial need can be filled by merit aid, such as scholarships or grants, in addition to loans and other financial aid.

After aid, the amount left is a student’s net price. This is what would be paid out of pocket. Depending on a student’s finances and aid, net cost can be fuzzy. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a free net price calculator to make the formula easier.

Net price calculators, which can also be found on many college financial aid sites, take the COA and subtract scholarships or merit aid a student is eligible for. Having that rough idea of net cost through the help of COA and expected family contribution can help students compare aid packages across schools. For instance, one college’s COA may be higher than another, but based on how generous the aid is, the net price could be lower at the school with the more expensive COA.

How COA Affects Student Loans

A school’s COA will influence a financial aid package an individual receives.

Once a student selects a college to attend, the school will let federal and private lenders know how large a loan is needed.

Keep in mind that no matter a school’s COA, there is a limit on federal student loans. For example, first-year dependent undergrads have a $5,500 federal student loan limit.

Making the Right Choices

Understanding a school’s COA can help cover your aspirations. It’s essential to know when crunching numbers to fund an education.

But even after merit and need-based aid are applied, there still might not be enough to account for all expenses. Private student loans can fill in gaps.

SoFi® private student loans have a simple online application, flexible repayment plans, and no fees, ever.

Just as college can be a ticket to a better life, a private student loan from SoFi® is a ticket to SoFi® membership and a multitude of member benefits!



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SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change. SoFi Lending Corp. and its lending products are not endorsed by or directly affiliated with any college or university unless otherwise disclosed.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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