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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.

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.

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

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 EFC or Expected Contribution. The Expected Family Contribution is the amount of money that the school says your family can contribute to your education. EFC 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 EFC 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 EFC.

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. Research from The College Board, showed that you can expect a roughly 3% increase in tuition, room, and board each year.

Changes in cost of attendance can also work in the opposite direction! In fact, due to COVID-19, numerous colleges and universities discounted tuition for students.

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 EFC, you can consider alternative financing options such as PLUS loans, private student loans, and income share agreements. 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.

Key next steps for students

  • 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.