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Last update: November 8, 2023

9 minutes read

What is Cost of Attendance? Explaining the Critical Term

Master the ins and outs of college cost of attendance. Dive into loans, aid, and smart strategies to navigate college finances seamlessly.

encounterCollege can be a transformative experience, but what about the cost? That's a whole different story. So, how do you navigate the financial maze and make the best choices for your future? Let's break it down and take the mystery out of one of the most crucial terms you'll come across: the Cost of Attendance (COA).

Key takeaways

  • COA represents the annual estimated expenses for attending a college.

  • It encompasses tuition, room and board, books, and more.

  • Financial aid is calculated using COA and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

    What is cost of attendance?

    COA is the estimated yearly total of all your college expenses, including tuition, room and board, and books. In essence, it's the "sticker price" of your college journey used to determine your eligibility for financial aid.

    Why is Cost of Attendance a Big deal in College Finance?

    Cost of Attendance (COA) is like the price tag on a shiny new car. Only, instead of wheels, you're getting knowledge. It's the total bill you'd pay if you didn't score any financial aid. We're talking tuition, room and board, books, and those random supplies you didn't think you'd need.

    What's included in the COA?

    When colleges whip up their COA, they're not just pulling numbers out of thin air. Federal law mandates what they've got to factor in. Here's a breakdown:

    • Tuition and Fees: your ticket to those lectures and labs.

    • Room and Board: whether you're living the dorm life or off-campus.

    • Books and Supplies: those pricey textbooks and maybe a fancy calculator.

    • Transportation: gas, bus passes, or those flights back home.

    • Miscellaneous Expenses: laundry, etc.

    Now, it's crucial to remember that the COA is your college's version of the MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price) for cars. It's the asking price. But just as you'd haggle when buying a car, you can apply for financial aid when paying for college, which could mean you end up spending less than the COA.

    Can COA vary?

    Oh, absolutely. Picture this: two students, both attending the same university. One's chilling in a campus dorm, the other's commuting from their childhood bedroom. Their COAs? Definitely not twinsies. Colleges often create different COAs based on living situations. And if you're an out-of-state student? Buckle up, because that COA might just take you for a ride - attending out-of-state is often more expensive than an in-state school.

    And here's another curveball. Some colleges slice and dice their COAs into:

    • Billable Charges: The direct hits to your wallet, like tuition.

    • Indirect Expenses: Stuff you'll pay for but not necessarily to the college, like those off-campus dinners.

    How does COA impact financial aid?

    Remember FAFSA, that beast of a form you filled out? It's the golden ticket to determining how much financial aid you can snag. Here's how it works:

    1. College gives you their COA.

    2. Provided you filled out the FAFSA form, the Department of Education responds with your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) – soon to be called the Student Aid Index (SAI). As the name suggests, it’s the amount the folks over at the government believe your family can afford to contribute based on their income and other assets.

    3. College does some quick math: COA minus EFC to determine your financial need.

    4. Voila! The result is your financial need.

    Now, this number doesn’t necessarily mean the school will cover all of your financial needs - every school is different in what they can afford. The aid you're offered could include:

    • Federal Pell Grants: The best kind of money. It's free!

    • Specialized Scholarships: Some schools offer their own special scholarships based on merit (how well you did on high school, or as an incentive to join their sports team) or need

    • Subsidized Loans: This is a loan, but the government pauses interest while you study. It only kicks in after you graduate.

    • Unsubsidized Loans: Interest starts accruing as soon as you take it out, but you don’t need to start repayment until after you finish school.

    • Work-study Jobs: Because who doesn't want a job in the campus bookstore?

    Can I borrow more than COA?

    In the world of loans, the COA is like a ceiling. You can't shoot through it. Federal aid, grants, and loans all have a cap. They can't exceed the COA minus your EFC. It's all about balance. So, while you might have visions of diving into a Scrooge McDuck-style vault of loan money, the reality is a bit more...grounded.

    But, there's a silver lining. If federal loans and scholarships don't cover everything, private lenders might just fill the gap. Picture them as the sidekicks in a superhero movie. Handy to have around, but with their own set of rules. Just remember, while Iron Man had Jarvis, you'll probably need a co-signer.

    Advantages and disadvantages of Federal Student Loans

    Federal student loans, often the first go-to for college financing, come with their own set of pros and cons. While they can be a lifeline for many, it's essential to weigh the benefits against potential pitfalls.

    Advantages of Federal Student Loans

    Diving into the world of federal student loans? Here's what's solid about them:

    • Lower Interest Rates: Typically, they offer more competitive rates compared to private loans.

    • Subsidized Options: The government covers the interest on subsidized loans while you're in school. That's pretty much free money!

    • Flexible Repayment Plans: From income-driven plans to extended repayment, there's something for everyone.

    • Loan Forgiveness Programs: In specific professions or situations, especially if you work in the public sector or non-profit, you can get forgiveness after you make a certain number of payments.

    • No Credit Checks: For most federal loans, your credit score won't even be a factor.

    Disadvantages of Federal Student Loans

    But, like any financial tool, federal loans come with their own set of challenges:

    • Borrowing Limits: They cap how much you can borrow, which might not cover your entire COA.

    • Potential for Debt: It's easy to forget that loans = debt. Even with lower rates, it's money you'll have to repay.

    • Complex Terms and Conditions: You'll need to read the fine print and understand terms like deferment, forbearance, and more.

    • Impact on Credit: While they don't need a credit check initially, failing to repay can tank your credit score.

    Navigating the financial landscape of college can feel like a tightrope walk. Here's a quick table to help you keep your balance with some do’s and don'ts.

    Table: Best practices for managing college finances.

    How Can TuitionHero help

    In the vast universe of college finances, feeling lost is a common sentiment. But what if there was a beacon, a guiding light? Enter isn't just a website; it's a treasure trove of resources. Here's how they can be a game-changer for you:

    • Private Student Loans: When federal loans don't cover the whole COA, TuitionHero's got your back. They've got a list of reputable private lenders to bridge that gap.

    • Student Loan Refinancing: Feel like you're paying too much interest? They'll help you scout out better rates.

    • Scholarships: Because free money is the best kind of money. TuitionHero can guide you to potential scholarships you might not have discovered on your own.

    • FAFSA Assistance: If FAFSA feels like decoding the Matrix, TuitionHero is your Neo. They'll help you navigate and make sense of it all.

    • Credit Card Offers: Building credit is essential, but where to start? They've got solid choices for students looking to get their first credit card.

    Now, it's not just about getting money, it's about understanding it. Financial literacy can seem like a foreign language, but with the right resources, you'll be fluent in no time. offers insights, tools, and advice to ensure you're not just spending and borrowing but learning and growing.

    Final thoughts

    Understanding your COA and the resources available to you is the key to unlocking a stress-free college experience. At the end of the day, it's not just about the numbers, it's about empowering yourself to take control of your financial destiny. And trust me, once you do, it's an insane feeling of freedom!

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

    Here are some common questions about the average college cost of attendance.

    • Tuition & Fees: The basic charges for attending classes and using school facilities.

    • Room & Board: Costs for living on campus or estimated costs for living off-campus.

    • Books & Supplies: Expenses for textbooks and classroom materials.

    • Personal Expenses: Miscellaneous costs like laundry, cell phone bills, and personal items.

    • Transportation: Costs for traveling to and from school.

    Understanding the COA helps students and families plan and budget for college. Financial aid offices also use it to determine a student's eligibility for aid.

    Yes, the COA can change based on factors like inflation, changes in tuition rates, and other economic factors. It's a good practice to check the COA annually.


    Brian Flaherty avatar

    Brian is a graduate of the University of Virginia where he earned a B.A. in Economics. After graduation, Brian spent four years working working at a wealth management firm advising high-net-worth investors and institutions. During his time there, he passed the rigorous Series 65 exam and rose to a high-level strategy position.


    Rachel Lauren avatar

    Rachel Lauren is the co-founder and COO of Debbie, a tech startup that offers an app to help people pay off their credit card debt for good through rewards and behavioral psychology. She was previously a venture capital investor at BDMI, as well as an equity research analyst at Credit Suisse.

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