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Understanding the Cost of Attendance (COA)

Understanding the Cost of Attendance (COA)
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated March 28, 2023
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Cost of attendance (COA) refers to the total cost of attending school for one year, as estimated by your college. It includes tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, transportation, and other expenses that go into attending school. Your school’s cost of attendance impacts how much financial aid you can receive, including the amount of student loans you can borrow. Read on for a closer look at cost of attendance and how it affects your financial aid. 

What Is the Cost of Attendance?

The cost of attendance is the cost of attending college for one year. Each college must provide a cost of attendance for its students. COA is based on predetermined costs, such as tuition and fees, as well as estimates for expenses like books and transportation. Since the cost of college over time can change, cost of attendance is provided on an annual basis. A school might also give a few different costs of attendance based on various factors, such as: 
  • Part-time or full-time enrollment
  • Undergraduate or graduate level 
  • In-state residency or out-of-state student 
  • Housing situation — whether on-campus, off-campus, or commuter 
A school’s cost of attendance is just an estimate. Your actual cost might be higher or lower depending on your lifestyle. However, the cost of attendance is used by lenders and the Department of Education to determine how much financial aid you can receive. For example, you can’t borrow more in student loans than your school-certified cost of attendance, even if your personal expenses are greater than your school’s estimate. It’s also worth noting that the cost of attendance is just a sticker price. For students with financial need, the actual cost will be lower due to grants, scholarships, and other need-based aid. This applies whether you’re pursuing your bachelor’s degree or decide to go to grad school

COA vs. Tuition

When comparing the cost of attendance with tuition costs, keep in mind that these two expenses are not the same. Tuition is the price you pay to take classes, and it may be charged by semester, academic year, or per course credit. What is cost of attendance? Cost of attendance includes all the costs that go into earning your degree. It includes tuition, as well as fees, housing, meal plans, books, transportation, and other living expenses. Recommended: Discover the Benefits of Tuition Waiver Programs

Does FAFSA Consider the Cost of Attendance?

When you attend college, you don’t need to pay for your full cost of attendance out of pocket. Instead, you can qualify for federal financial aid to subsidize costs. To access this federal aid, you’ll need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Here’s how the FAFSA works: After submitting it, you’ll receive an Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is an index that schools use to determine how much financial aid you can receive. To determine your financial need, schools subtract your EFC from the cost of attendance. If your school’s cost of attendance is $30,000, for instance, and your EFC is $20,000, then your financial need is $10,000. If you have financial need, you could qualify for aid like a Pell Grant, Direct subsidized loans, and the work-study program. Schools also use your cost of attendance to calculate how much non-need-based aid you can get. Your non-need-based aid is the difference between your cost of attendance and the financial aid you’ve already received. Using the above example, let’s say you received $10,000 in need-based aid. Subtracting that amount from your cost of attendance of $30,000, your eligibility for non-need-based aid would be $20,000. This aid includes Direct unsubsidized loans and PLUS loans. Recommended: How Much Does Nursing School Cost?

Can COA Impact Your Student Loans?

Along with affecting the amount of financial aid you can receive, your cost of attendance also impacts how much you can borrow in federal and private student loans. You’re allowed to borrow up to your school-certified cost of attendance, minus any other financial aid you’ve already received. As discussed above, the Department of Education relies on your cost of attendance and EFC to determine the amount of aid you can receive, including student loans. Private lenders also look at your cost of attendance when evaluating your application for a loan. Before disbursing your loan, the lender reaches out to your school to certify its COA.You can’t borrow more than your school-certified COA, minus any other financial aid you’ve already received.One thing to keep in mind if you already have loans: You may be able to refinance student loans for more favorable rates and terms and to potentially help lower your payments. Just be aware that refinancing federal student loans makes them ineligible for federal protection and forgiveness programs. If you don’t need access to these programs, refinancing might be worth considering if it could save you money.

Calculating Your Cost of Attendance

You can usually find your school’s cost of attendance on the financial aid section of its website. Many schools break down the COA so you can see its specific estimates for tuition, fees, books, housing, food, and other expenses. If you’re coming up with your financial plan for the year, however, you don’t have to rely on your school’s estimated COA alone. Instead, it’s worth drawing up your own cost of attendance, based on how much you plan to spend on housing, meals, and other living expenses. Note that your personal COA won’t impact your financial aid or student loan eligibility — your school’s official COA is used for that. However, it can help you plan out your budget for the year and identify areas where you might be able to save. Unfortunately, financial hardship is one of the reasons students drop out of college. Whether you’re figuring out the total expenses for your bachelor’s degree or how much medical school will cost, it’s worth taking the time to estimate your personal cost of attendance. Recommended: Is a PhD Worth It? Top 10 Highest-Paying PhDs

What Can Increase or Decrease Your COA?

Some costs that go into your COA are fixed, such as tuition and fees. A lot of other expenses, however, are based on average estimates that might be higher or lower for you.Here are some costs that could increase or decrease your actual cost of attendance, depending on how much you spend: 
  • Housing: Whether you choose to live in the dorms or an off-campus apartment will impact your housing costs. The location of your college plays a factor here, too. An off-campus apartment with roommates could be affordable if you go to school in the suburbs, for instance, while one in New York City may be pricier than the dorms.  
  • Food: Compare the costs of a dining hall meal plan with buying groceries and cooking for yourself. Avoid eating out at restaurants or getting takeout too often if you want to keep costs down.  
  • Supplies: Books, a computer, and other supplies can all make your COA go up or down. Buying used textbooks online, rather than getting them from the school bookstore, could help you cut costs.  
  • Transportation: Keeping a car at school could significantly add to your cost of attendance when you factor in parking, gas, and insurance expenses. If you can opt for walking or bicycling over having a car, you may be able to decrease your COA.  
You might have additional costs if you participate in sports, other extracurriculars, or study abroad.

The Takeaway

The cost of attendance is the sticker price of how much school will cost you for the year, as determined by your college. Understanding your cost of attendance can help you plan your budget for the school year. But remember that your school’s COA is just a sticker price — you may receive financial aid that brings down the cost you have to pay. Plus, it’s worth coming up with your own COA based on your expected expenses for housing, transportation, and other expenses. By taking some time to plan out your costs for the year, you can figure out how to meet them in the way that works best for your finances.  If you borrow student loans to cover your cost of attendance, you may be able to refinance them for better rates and terms. One of the benefits of student loan refinancing is that if you qualify for a lower interest rate, you could save money. Compare offers from multiple lenders with Lantern to find the best offer for your situation.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is the cost of attendance the same as tuition?
What is the meaning of cost of attendance?
Is FAFSA based on cost of attendance?
Photo credit: iStock/skynesher

About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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