Understanding College Costs: What is the Cost of Attendance?

November 27, 2023 6 min read Liaison

Calculating the cost of attendance is a crucial step for students and parents in understanding the financial requirements of higher education.

Key Takeaways

The cost of attendance (COA) for a year of college or graduate school includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, personal expenses, and transportation.

Tuition varies by institution type, residency status, and study program, with private and specialized programs typically costing more.

Room and board costs are influenced by living arrangements (on campus vs. off campus) and the college's geographic location.

COA also includes indirect expenses like personal spending and transportation, which vary based on individual lifestyle and campus location.

It's essential to differentiate between “sticker price” (total COA) and “net price” (COA after financial aid), using tools like the College Net Price Calculator for accurate planning.


Understanding the financial aspect of higher education is crucial for prospective students and their families. One key term that often surfaces during college planning is the "cost of attendance" (COA). This comprehensive figure goes beyond just tuition, encapsulating the total expense of attending a college or graduate school for one academic year. This article will dive deeper into the subject so you can clearly understand the cost of attendance and how to calculate it.

Cost of Attendance Defined

The cost of attendance accounts for the total amount you will spend while attending a particular college or university for one academic year. This includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation. Each institution determines the COA, which can vary widely based on factors like location, type of institution, and course of study.

How is the Cost of Attendance Used?

Colleges use the cost of attendance to determine the amount of financial aid you're eligible to receive. With the new academic year starting in 2024-25, schools will calculate aid eligibility by subtracting your Student Aid Index (SAI) from your school's cost of attendance.

The SAI is calculated based on the information you enter when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It is basically the federal government's estimate of how much you can afford to pay for your education through student loans or directly from your own pocket.

How to Calculate Cost of Attendance

Understanding the cost of attendance (COA) is a crucial step for students and parents planning for the financial requirements of higher education. Each institution has its own method for determining COA, but the core components generally include:


Tuition forms the foundation of COA. It's the fee charged for instructional services and can vary dramatically based on several factors, including:

  • Type of Institution: Private universities often have higher tuition rates than public institutions.
  • Residency Status: In-state students at public universities usually pay lower tuition than out-of-state students.
  • Program of Study: Certain programs, such as engineering or medicine, may have higher tuition and fees due to specialized equipment and facilities.

Room and Board

Room and board covers the costs of living and eating while attending college. This can differ based on:

  • On Campus vs. Off Campus: Living on campus generally includes a meal plan, whereas off-campus living might require separate budgeting for food and rent.
  • Location: The cost of living varies widely by geographic area, impacting the overall expenses for room and board.

Books and Supplies

This category covers textbooks and other necessary learning materials. Costs can be influenced by:

  • Course Requirements: Some courses require specific, often expensive, textbooks or equipment.
  • Alternatives to New Books: Purchasing used books, renting textbooks, or using digital versions can significantly reduce this expense.

Personal Expenses

These are estimated costs for miscellaneous needs like clothing, personal care items, and leisure activities. The amount can vary greatly based on individual lifestyle and choices.


Transportation costs include daily commuting expenses and travel to and from home during breaks. Factors affecting transportation costs include:

  • Distance from Home: Students traveling long distances or frequently visiting home will incur higher transportation costs.
  • Campus Location: Urban campuses might offer cheaper public transportation options compared to rural campuses, where a car might be necessary.

Other Potential Costs

Some additional costs that might be included in COA are:

  • Health Insurance: Many institutions require students to have health insurance, which can be an added cost if you are not already covered under a family plan.
  • Technology Fees: With the increasing use of technology in education, some colleges add a technology fee to cover resources like campus Wi-Fi, computer labs, and online course platforms.

Special Circumstances

The COA can also be adjusted for special circumstances, such as:

  • Disabilities: Additional costs for students with disabilities might be factored into their personalized COA.
  • Dependent Care: For students with dependents, childcare costs can be included in the COA calculation.

College Net Price vs. Sticker Price

While doing your research, you might have come across references to the net price or sticker price. Understanding the difference is critical. The sticker price is the full cost of attendance, while the net price is what students actually pay after financial aid is considered.

What is the College Net Price Calculator?

Many colleges offer a net price calculator on their websites. This tool will help you estimate your individual net price based on your personal financial information. Fill it out as carefully as possible in order to get the most accurate calculation.


The cost of attendance is an all-encompassing figure that prospective students must consider when evaluating the affordability of a college or graduate school. It includes direct costs like tuition and indirect costs like personal expenses and transportation. Understanding the COA helps you make informed decisions about college affordability and financial planning.


The sticker price is the total cost of attendance before financial aid, while the net price is the amount the student pays after scholarships and grants are applied.

A net price calculator is a tool provided by colleges to estimate a student's individual cost after financial aid.

A reduced tuition rate for residents of the state where the public college or university is located.

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