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How Colleges Figure "Cost of Attendance"

University of Pennsylvania college campus

A college's "cost of attendance"—the average cost to attend for a single year—is one of the biggest factors in your financial aid award.

Knowing a college's "cost of attendance" (COA) is critical when comparing aid awards. A college with a high COA may offer a generous aid package but still be more expensive than one with a much lower COA.

What's Included in the COA

As dictated by Congress, the COA is the average cost to attend for one academic year (fall through spring). It includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses. Colleges adjust the COA yearly to reflect changes to these costs.

How the COA Drives Your Financial Aid

The college subtracts your Expected Family Contribution from the COA to calculate your need for financial aid. The higher the COA, the more aid you will be eligible for.

Your Own COA May Be Different

Colleges create several official COAs that reflect differences in living costs (on-campus, off-campus, or at home) and in-state and out-of-state tuition. Your actual cost to attend might be more than the official COA depending on your major, participation in extracurricular activities, and travel expenses.

Examples of Private and Public COAs

Here are some COAs that colleges reported for the 2017-2018 academic year. These costs are for undergraduates living on campus and enrolled in liberal arts programs.

Private colleges:
Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) – $70,371
Duke University (Durham, NC) – $72,554
Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA) – $65,814
Rice University (Houston, TX) – $63,458
Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) – $69,584
Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA) – $68,334

Public colleges (for state residents):
University of Arizona (Tucson) – $28,177
University of California (Berkeley) – $36,015
University of Idaho (Moscow) – $21,300
University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) – $25,407
University of Massachusetts (Amherst) – $30,814
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) – $29,526

COA and Net Price

Your bottom line to attend any college is not the COA—it's the 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, any financial need unmet by the college, and any loans or work-study earnings (these forms of aid do not reduce what you pay out-of-pocket for college).

What's Next?

Use the Net Price Calculator to estimate your net price to attend any college.

Look up the cost of attendance at any college using College Match.

See What's the Price Tag for a College Education? to learn more about what goes into the COA.

Financial information contained on the CollegeData website is for general informational purposes only and may not apply to you or your situation. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of any financial content contained on the CollegeData website without consulting with a financial or tax advisor, or your parents, high school counselors, admissions representatives or other college counseling professionals. We disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on any content on the CollegeData website.