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    What Is Cost of Attendance?

    By Will Geiger

    Will Geiger is the co-founder of Scholarships360 and has a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. He is a former Senior Assistant Director of Admissions at Kenyon College where he personally reviewed 10,000 admissions applications and essays. Will also managed the Kenyon College merit scholarship program and served on the financial aid appeals committee. He has also worked as an Associate Director of College Counseling at a high school in New Haven, Connecticut. Will earned his master’s in education from the University of Pennsylvania and received his undergraduate degree in history from Wake Forest University.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: April 16th, 2024
    What Is Cost of Attendance?

    When you are thinking about how much you will need to pay for your college education, cost of attendance or COA is one of the big numbers you will want to consider.

    Understanding cost of attendance is an important part of paying for college. Keep on reading to learn more about:

    What is cost of attendance? 

    Cost of attendance is the estimated cost of attending college for an entire academic year including tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, and other expenses. You can think about cost of attendance as the “sticker price” of a college education. Remember, the COA of a college is before any financial aid, grants, and/or scholarships have been applied. If your really want to attend a particular school, it is might still be worth applying even if you think it is out of financial reach. 

    Advice from an Admissions Professional



    When it comes to financial aid, one of the biggest mistakes students make is not applying to a school based on the “sticker price.” If you like a school, apply. After applying and receiving your financial aid offer, you might find that it’s not a good financial fit for you. Or, you might find that it is. If you don’t try, you don’t give yourself the opportunity.

    Erika Greeley | Senior Assistant Director of Admissions - Events and Data Support, Northern Michigan University

    How does cost of attendance impact my financial aid?

    Cost of attendance is one of the most important numbers that impacts your financial aid. The other important number is the Student Aid Index, or SAI. The SAI is the amount of money that the school says your family can contribute to your education. SAI is determined by the FAFSA and for some schools, the CSS Profile.

    Once a college understands how much money your family can contribute to your education, they may offer financial aid to make up the difference so that you can pay for the total cost of attendance.

    The “gap” between the cost of attendance and your SAI might be filled by a variety of options including need-based grants (Pell Grants and Federal SEOG Grants), student loans, federal work-study, and merit-based scholarships.

    Students can also apply to private scholarships to help fill this gap between COA and SAI.

    Cost of attendance can change each year

    Generally, the cost of attendance can rise each year as the college adjusts budgets. This is important to note, because you will be attending college for four years to receive a bachelor’s degree. This also does not include any potential increases in tuition, room, and board.

    What if my college does not meet my demonstrated need?

    If you receive your financial aid award letter and there is not enough financial aid to bridge the gap between the cost of attendance and SAI, you can consider alternative financing options such as the ones below!

    Parent PLUS loans

    Parent PLUS loans are a way for parents to take out loans in order to pay for their children’s college education. They work much like normal student loans, but tend to have higher interest rates. 

    Private student loans

    After exploring unsubsidized and subsidized direct loans, you can start looking into private student loans. Private student loans shouldn’t be your first choice, but if you have exhausted all your other options, they may be worth looking into. 

    Income share agreements 

    Income share agreements are a way to have your school paid for, on the contingency that upon gaining a job in your desired field, part of your income will go to the institution who originally paid for your education.  

    Each of these options has drawbacks, so students should exhaust all of their options before taking on additional financing.

    Where can I find cost of attendance info for specific schools?

    We always recommend that students go straight to the source and consult with the individual college’s financial aid website. If you are looking to get an estimate of what a financial aid package might look like for your family, you can use the Net Price Calculator to estimate need-based (and in some cases merit-based) financial aid.

    While cost of attendance is useful, it does not tell you the whole story about what your college education will cost.

    Next Steps

    Next Steps

    • Review the total cost of attendance for the colleges that you are considering
    • Complete the Net Price Calculator to receive a personalized estimate of what a college will cost you with financial aid 
    • Explore your financing options for school, including scholarships, loans, grants and ISA’s

    Start your scholarship search
    • Vetted scholarships custom-matched to your profile
    • Access exclusive scholarships only available to Scholarships360 members
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    Frequently asked questions about cost of attendance

    Is cost of attendance accurate?

    When you calculate cost of attendance using either a college’s website or a cost of attendance calculator, the number you get should be very close to the actual price you’ll pay. However, keep in mind that lots of things can impact that number and you should be prepared to see that number change slightly. 

    What are examples of cost of attendance?

    Cost of attendance looks at the cost of tuition, fees, room, board, books, and other personal expenses. The aim of calculating cost of attendance is to give you the most accurate view of not just what tuition will cost, but also what living expenses will look like as those will likely be expenses that you need help paying for.

    Does FAFSA consider cost of living?

    The short answer is that FAFSA does not consider your cost of living when looking at how much federal aid you will receive. However, that doesn’t mean that the school you attend won’t see your remaining need and consider that number into the aid they offer you.

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