Cost of Attendance & College Financial Aid — What You Need to Know

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Cost of attendance is determined by your institution, and it has an impact on financial aid and federal and private student loan borrowing limits.

Cost of attendance is the estimated amount of a student's college costs for one academic year. COA includes the average cost of tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses. It's determined by the school's financial aid office.

Ahead, learn what cost of attendance is and how it impacts the amount of federal and private student loans you can borrow each school year.

What is cost of attendance?

Cost of attendance, or COA, is the estimated amount of money it will cost you to go to college full-time for one academic year (nine months). It includes tuition, room and board, books, transportation, loan fees, and miscellaneous expenses. Schools use COA to set the limit on how much financial aid a student can get from scholarships, Pell Grants, and student loans for the school year to cover those costs.

The COA your school gives you will change based on your circumstances. For example, you'll have a different COA if you live on-campus versus off-campus or if you commute from home. Similarly, you'll have a different COA if you're a resident, non-resident, or international student, or if you're an undergraduate or graduate student.

Is cost of attendance the same as tuition? No, cost of attendance is not the same as tuition. Tuition is only one component of cost of attendance. In addition to tuition, COA includes room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses.

How is cost of attendance used?

Schools use cost of attendance to:

Determine the maximum amount of financial aid you're eligible to receive each year. Your school's financial aid office will use your cost of attendance to set a limit on how much money you can get in scholarships, grants, and student loans.

Calculate your need-based aid eligibility. Schools calculate how much financial aid you can get by subtracting your expected family contribution from the COA. Your EFC is based on the information you provided when you applied for federal student aid. It's the estimate of what the Education Department believes your family can afford to pay for your education, either out of pocket or through student loans.

Set the borrowing limit for federal and private student loans. The cost of attendance is used to calculate the maximum amount you can borrow in federal student loans. For example, if your cost of attendance is $20,000 per academic year and you've already received $8 thousand in scholarships, grants, and work-study, the most you can borrow in federal student loans would be $12 thousand.

Many private lenders also tie borrowing limits for private student loans to a school's cost of attendance. You typically can't borrow more than your cost of attendance, minus other aid you’ve received. Read more about federal vs private student loans.

Learn More: What is a Private Student Loan?

How can I increase my cost of attendance?

Your school's financial aid officer can use their professional judgment to increase your cost of attendance to cover:

  • Additional tuition or course fees.
  • Additional books and supplies.
  • Car repairs.
  • A computer purchase.
  • Expenses related to an international student exchange program.
  • Travel expenses if you commute.

If granted, an increase in COA lets you borrow more federal or private student loans. But it does not increase your scholarship, grant, or work-study funding.

Financial Aid Packages and COA

Each school that you apply to will send you a financial aid package. When comparing those packages, make sure that you check the estimated cost of attendance for each school — not just how much aid the school awarded you.

The college that offers you the least financial aid could be the best value if it has a low COA.

You can check the COA and financial aid available at each college by using the net price calculator on its website. The net price lets you compare how much it would cost you to attend different schools. You can also get an idea of how much you will need to budget, as well as how much you might expect to borrow for each school. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau also has a tool to help you compare the costs of going to different schools.

You can also use the Department of Education's College Scorecard to figure out how much debt is reasonable to take on with your chosen degree.

COA FAQs

Is FAFSA based on cost of attendance? Your FAFSA eligibility is not based on COA, but the maximum amount of federal student aid you can receive is tied to your COA, Expected Family Contribution, year in school, and enrollment status — part-time versus full-time student. The financial aid office at your college will determine how much financial aid you're eligible to receive.

Can I take out more loans than the cost of attendance? Federal law prohibits you from borrowing more federal student loans than needed to cover the estimated cost of attendance. Similarly, most private student loan lenders limit the amount you can borrow to the COA minus other aid already received. If your financial need exceeds the COA, you can ask the school to increase your COA.

How is cost of attendance calculated? Each school determines how much it will charge students for tuition, fees, and room and board. It will also calculate the costs to cover transportation, living expenses, and other higher-education-related expenses.

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