A college's official cost of attendance is a big factor in determining how much aid you could receive. It's helpful to know what should be in that figure when comparing aid awards. Here's what to look for.
Every college calculates an official budget that details the average cost for a student to attend the institution for a full academic year. This amount is called the cost of attendance, or simply the COA. This official figure is important because the college subtracts your Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, from the COA to calculate your financial need.
What's Included in the COA
Congress has dictated the general formula for figuring the COA. For just about all students, it usually includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses. (Some state colleges differentiate costs for state residents vs. nonresidents.) Colleges usually adjust the cost of attendance each year to reflect changes in the cost of living and changes in tuition and fees. To learn more about what goes into the COA, see our article What's the Price Tag for a College Education?
The COA and Your Living Arrangements
Colleges commonly develop multiple undergraduate student COAs, which vary according to student living arrangements (on-campus, off-campus, and at home). The budgets for students living at home with their parents are almost always lower than for students living on campus or off campus in an apartment in the community.
Sample Private and Public COAs
Here are some reported COAs for the 2011–2012 academic year. The figures are for undergraduates living on campus and enrolled in liberal arts programs. They do not include transportation costs. You can look up the cost of attendance at other four-year colleges using CollegeData's College Match search tool.
Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) – $59,591
Duke University (Durham, NC) – $56,056
Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA) – $53,318
Rice University (Houston, TX) – $52,242
Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) – $58,536
Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA) – $58,090
Public colleges (for state residents):
University of Arizona (Tucson) – $24,729
University of California, Berkeley – $32,884
University of Idaho (Moscow) – $20,844
University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) – $22,340
University of Massachusetts Amherst – $26,397
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) – $26,668
Tying the COA to Your Actual Costs
A college's official COA is an important factor in your plan for paying for college, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The bottom line is net price—the total out-of-pocket cost that you will actually pay. Net price includes the amount the college expects you and your family to contribute to your education (your EFC), any financial need you have that the college is not able to cover, and any financial aid awarded to you in the form of loans or work-study earnings (money which ultimately comes out of your pocket). You can estimate your net price to attend any college using CollegeData's Net Price Calculator. It provides personalized results based on your financial situation and college choices.
Your Own Personal COA May Be Different
Keep in mind that your actual costs of attending a college may differ from the college's estimated COA. After all, the college uses an average, and each individual's circumstances are different. Your living costs might be different than what the college estimates. Your personal costs might add up to more if you are very actively involved with cultural and recreational activities around campus, or fly to the college from a great distance.
If your costs are higher than the college's COA, the college isn't likely to adjust its official cost of attendance unless your major comes with extra expenses such as lab equipment. But it doesn't hurt to call the financial aid office to discuss the situation. You might be able to negotiate for some additional aid.