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A college’s cost of attendance (COA) is the total direct and indirect costs of a year of college. The cost of attendance may also be called the student budget or the sticker price. Direct costs are costs that are paid directly to the college, such as tuition and fees.
The cost of attendance is defined in section 472 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 [20 USC 1087ll].
What’s Included in the Cost of Attendance?
The cost of attendance includes the following charges:
- Tuition and Fees
- Books, Supplies and Equipment
- Room and Board
- Miscellaneous/Personal Expenses
The cost of attendance may also include:
- Cost of a Personal Computer, Software and Internet Access
- Dependent Care and Elder Care
- Loan Fees
- Disability-Related Costs
- Costs for Approved Study-Abroad Programs
- Costs for Obtaining a Professional License or Certification
Most colleges and universities have three student budgets, one for students who live on campus in college-owned or operated housing, one for students who live off-campus and one for students who live at home with their parents or relatives. Housing expenses are excluded for students who live on a military base or who receive a basic allowance for housing.
Transportation costs may include commuting costs to/from school and the cost of traveling home on breaks.
Dependent-care costs must be paid to an independent third party, not to the student’s spouse.
If the student is enrolled less than half-time, the annual room and board is limited to a total of three academic terms.
The cost of attendance may also be limited in other ways for students who are enrolled less than half-time, who participate in correspondence study or who are incarcerated. For example, miscellaneous and personal expenses are excluded for students who enroll on less than a half-time basis.
If parts of the normal cost of attendance are waived, the overall cost of attendance will be reduced. For example, the cost of attendance will be reduced if the student’s tuition is waived because of service as a resident assistant, service in student government or a teaching or research assistantship.
The cost of attendance may be prorated for periods that are longer or shorter than a full academic year.
Actual Costs May Differ
The costs included in a college’s cost of attendance are allowances, often based on averages or estimates. Actual costs for individual students may differ. Some of the indirect costs are discretionary and under the student’s control. For example, a student can save about half of textbook costs by buying used textbooks, renting textbooks or selling the textbooks back to the bookstore at the end of the academic term.
On the other hand, if a student’s costs are higher, the student can appeal to the college’s financial aid office for an adjustment to the cost of attendance. For example, textbook and transportation allowances in the cost of attendance often underestimate the actual costs. Course-specific lab fees might not be included in the cost of attendance. Students should save receipts to justify an appeal for a possible increase in the cost of attendance. Not all schools will grant an increase in the cost of attendance when the student’s actual costs exceed the allowances upon which the student budget is based.
Most colleges that allow adjustments for the cost of computer hardware, software or internet access require the student to provide a paid receipt before they will increase the cost of attendance. Some colleges limit computer hardware and software purchases to once every four years.
Costs May Increase Each Year
The cost of attendance will generally increase each year due to inflationary increases in the various components of the cost of attendance. This includes increases in the college’s tuition and fees (except at colleges that lock in tuition for four years of continuous enrollment) and increases in the cost of room and board.
Some colleges base annual adjustments on the actual charges, some based on a standardized inflationary adjustment such as the national, regional or state Consumer Price Index (CPI-U), some based on student and college-community (rent) surveys and some based on the College Board’s Living Expense Budget survey.
How the Cost of Attendance Affects Financial Aid
Eligibility for need-based financial aid is capped at the cost of attendance. Federal education loans are also capped at the cost of attendance minus other aid received, based on the period of enrollment.