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How Colleges Figure Cost of Attendance

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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 COA's

Here are some COAs that colleges reported for the 2020-2021 academic year. These costs are for undergraduates living on campus and enrolled in liberal arts programs.

Private colleges:
Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) – $78,002
Duke University (Durham, NC) – $80,774
Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA) – $75,698
Rice University (Houston, TX) – $67,352
Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) – $78,218
Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA) – $73,260

Public colleges (for state residents):
University of Arizona (Tucson) – $30,509
University of California (Berkeley) – $41,885
University of Idaho (Moscow) – $21,898
University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) – $24,734
University of Massachusetts (Amherst) – $32,756
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) – $31,484

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).

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