College cost of attendance is an estimate of the total cost of attending college for one year that includes the cost of one year of tuition, books, supplies, room and board, transportation, loan fees, and other personal expenses.
Here’s how to calculate the cost of attendance, why it matters, and how it can inform financing an education.
The Cost of Attendance for College
The cost of attendance (COA) for college is an estimate of the total cost of attending a college for one year. The expenses included in COA are outlined by federal law . As briefly mentioned, this estimate includes expenses such as the tuition and fees for one year of school, room and board, books and supplies, transportation costs, loan fees, and other personal expenses. This number is used to help colleges determine the amount of financial aid a student is eligible for, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans.
The Difference Between Cost of Attendance and Tuition
Tuition covers the actual cost of academic instruction. COA on the other hand includes other expenses the student will likely incur in order to live. COA includes things like room and board, books and supplies, and transportation costs.
Schools are required to publish the COA on their website, so the information is readily accessible to students. Schools also generally publish more than one COA. For example, state universities may list a COA for in-state vs. out-of-state students. 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 is an estimated average based on previous student spending and estimates, so your actual costs may be different than the COA.
What Is the Average College Cost of Attendance?
Simply put, the cost of attendance is the estimated amount it will cost for a student to attend a school. 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.
According to The College Board, the average published cost for tuition and fees for the 2022-2023 school year was $10,950 for students at public four-year institutions with in-state tuition and was $39,400 for students at private nonprofit four-year universities.
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What Does Cost of Attendance Include?
As mentioned, 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 include 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.
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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.
College Cost Attendance List
The COA for colleges can vary quite dramatically depending on a school’s location, whether it is private or public, among other factors. Some programs may have additional fees and costs (like lab fees) which could increase the cost of attendance for certain majors or programs.
The following table provides an overview of the published COA for undergraduate students living on-campus at several schools around the country during the 2023-2024 school year (unless noted with an asterisk, in which case it is the 2022-2023 school year).
|School||Type||Cost of Attendance|
|Cornell University (Ithaca, NY)||Private||$88,150|
|Dartmouth College (Hanover, NH)||Private||$87,793|
|Rice University (Houston, TX)||Private||$78,278|
|Vanderbilt (Nashville, TN)||Private||$84,412*|
|University of Chicago (Chicago, IL)||Private||$85,536*|
|California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA)||Private||$86,886|
|Gonzaga University (Spokane, WA)||Private||$74,249|
|University of California (Los Angeles)||Public||In-state: $38,517
|University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)||Public||In-state: $26,118
|University of Massachusetts (Amherst)||Public||In-state: $35,765
|University of Oregon (Eugene)||Public||In-state: $35,721
|Oklahoma State University (Stillwater)||Public||In-state: $31,920
|University of Alabama (Tuscaloosa)||Public||In-state: $32,054*
|University of Michigan (Ann Arbor)||Public||In-state: $33,555*
*2022-2023 school year COA.
Can I Borrow More Than the Cost of Attendance?
It is generally not possible to borrow more than the cost of attendance for a school. Federal student loans are limited by law to the cost of attendance less than the amount of aid received. Often, private student loans have similar lending restrictions, though these are set by the lender.
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 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) but also:
• Taxed and untaxed income
• 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 can also be found on many college financial aid sites. These calculators generally 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.
In addition, regardless of a school’s COA, there are annual lending limits for federal student loans. For example, federal student loans for undergraduate programs are limited to $5,500 for first year dependent students. No more than $3,500 of this amount may be in subsidized loans.
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.
Paying for College
Students often rely on a variety of financing options when paying for college. Often the first step for students is filling out the FAFSA, which is how students can apply for all forms of federal aid including federal grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans. There are a lot of options so it’s important to understand the difference between grants vs. scholarships vs. student loan from a private lender. Here are a few other strategies and options that can help students pay for college.
Private Student Loan
Private student loans from lenders are available. Interested applicants will need to file individual applications with private lenders. Interest rates and loan terms are generally determined by an applicant’s personal financial factors such as credit score and income. Consider shopping around at a few different lenders to find the best rate and terms for your personal situation. Some lenders may offer private student loan discounts, for things like setting up autopay or a customer appreciation discount.
Applicants without an extensive credit history or a relatively low credit score may find that adding a cosigner to their application can help them qualify for a loan or qualify for more competitive rates and terms.
Additionally, an important note when comparing student loans from private lenders vs. federal student loans is that federal loans offer borrower protections that private loans do not. For this reason, private loans are generally borrowed as a last-resort option after other financing options have been exhausted.
For those interested in pursuing a graduate degree, there are student loans for graduate programs available too.
Schools may allow students to pay for their tuition with a credit card. Most schools do charge a fee (often between 2% to 3%) for this convenience, which can offset any rewards you may be earning on your credit card. In addition, credit cards have fairly substantial interest rates. Therefore, paying for tuition with a credit card may not make the most financial sense.
On the other hand, when credit cards are used responsibly they can be helpful tools to help students establish and build their credit history. Students could use credit cards to pay for books, food, gas, or other transportation costs. Be sure to pay attention to interest rates and pay off your credit card each month to avoid credit card debt.
If you have been saving for college, using those funds to pay for tuition or other college costs can help you avoid borrowing for college. When you borrow student loans to pay for college, you’ll end up paying interest, which increases the total amount you spend over the life of the loan. By paying for some expenses with savings, you may be able to reduce the overall bill.
Generally, grants, which are often awarded based on financial need, don’t need to be repaid. Grants are available from the federal government, individual schools, and even some nonprofit organizations.
Scholarships are another type of aid that doesn’t require repayment. Often awarded based on merit or other personal criteria (like gender, ethnicity, hobbies, or academic interest), scholarships are available from a variety of sources such as the school, state or local governments, corporations, or nonprofit organizations. Review your school’s financial aid website and conduct an online search to find scholarships you may be eligible for.
Recommended: The Differences Between Grants, Scholarships, and Loans
Cost of attendance (COA) is an estimate that includes the cost of tuition in addition to other expenses such as room and board, books, transportation, food and meals. The requirements for COA are outlined by federal law and each school is required to publish its COA on their website so this information can be easily accessed.
Students won’t necessarily be required to pay the full COA — things like scholarships, grants, and other forms of financial aid can reduce the actual net price a student ends up paying. That’s why it’s important to compare not only the cost of each school, but the financial aid package each school offers.
To pay for college, students likely have to rely on a few different funding sources. If you’re looking to fill in gaps in funding, private student loans could be an option to consider. SoFi® private student loans have a simple online application, flexible repayment plans, and no fees.
What does cost of attendance mean for college?
The cost of attendance (COA) is an estimate for the total cost of attending a college for a single year. The COA includes not only tuition, but costs like room and board, food and meals, books and supplies, transportation, and other miscellaneous personal costs. The items required for inclusion in the COA are outlined by federal law and each college or university is required to publish the details for the college’s COA on the school website.
What is the difference between cost of attendance and tuition?
A school’s tuition is the price for academic instruction. The cost of attendance includes the cost of tuition in addition to other expenses including room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and more.
How much does college cost per year?
The cost of college can vary based on many factors including your location, whether you attend a private or public university, if you receive in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, and the type of program you are enrolled in. According to The College Board the average cost of attending a four year nonprofit private institution was $39,400 during the 2022-2023 school year. During the same time period, the average cost for tuition and fees at public four-year institutions with in-state tuition was $10,950.
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