Why You Should Care About Your College’s Cost of Attendance

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When you apply for financial aid, the amount you qualify for is based in part on the college’s “cost of attendance.” But do you understand what this important term really means?

Before accepting an offer for financial aid, make sure you know the definition of the cost of attendance, how it’s calculated, and how financial aid offices use it to determine your student aid offer.

Let’s look at the following topics:

College cost of attendance definition
Expenses included in cost of attendance
Expenses not included in cost of attendance
How calculated cost of attendance costs may differ from actual costs
How cost of attendance is used to determine financial need
Shopping around for the cost of attendance

College cost of attendance definition

The cost of attendance is a figure calculated by financial aid offices that represents the average cost of attending their college.

As you know, costs vary widely depending on whether you’re going to a community college, state college or private college. No matter where you’re going, however, the cost of attendance should not be confused with what you are actually going to pay for college.

What you end up actually paying out of pocket will depend on how much financial aid you get first. That’s where cost of attendance comes into play — it’s one of four factors used by financial aid offices to determine your financial aid eligibility, which also includes your Expected Family Contribution, your enrollment status and the year of college for which you are enrolled.

Expenses included in cost of attendance

While the cost will vary from school to school, the categories of school expenses included in cost of attendance are pretty much the same:

  • Tuition and fees: Types of fees may include activity fees (for maintaining the student center, library and on-campus gym), health fees (for visits to the campus health center), counseling fees (for career and general guidance), parking fees, enrollment fees, technology fees (for computer labs) and “green” fees (for energy-related expenses).
  • Room and board: This covers the cost of housing and food, whether you live on campus or off. That said, your off-campus allowance for living expenses will be limited, meaning it won’t automatically cover whatever you choose to spend on rent or food. If you go over the allowance, the difference will have to come out of your pocket.
  • Books, supplies, transportation and miscellaneous expenses: The cost of buying your own personal computer or printer may be included in this category.
  • Child care or other dependent care: This cost allowance is decided on a case-by-case basis.
  • Disability expenses: This is another cost allowance decided on by a case-by-case basis.
  • Studying abroad: First, the program has to be eligible. If it’s approved, the cost allowance is limited to “reasonable” expenses.

Your cost of attendance is calculated by adding all of these qualifying expenses together. Most schools calculate this figure based on the cost of attending a fall and spring semester. However, the cost of attendance time frame may be longer for certain certification programs.

It’s also worth noting that the cost of attendance is generally higher for graduate and professional students. Keep in mind as well that your cost of attendance may rise year over year, as tuition and other expenses increase.

There is one circumstance in which this list of included expenses will vary. If you are attending school less than half- time, there may be limits on how much will include room and board, for example.

Expenses not included in cost of attendance

Though the cost of attendance includes basic living expenses, including housing costs, food and some personal expenses, it’s limited. That means you’re not going to see your college incorporating any of the following types of cost into your cost of attendance:

  • Car payments or insurance (the cost of attendance allowance for transportation is limited to the cost of commuting and parking)
  • Credit card debt
  • A new wardrobe
  • Travel (other than potentially some study-abroad programs)

If you budget right, you may have enough extra money here and there to pay a credit card bill or buy a new outfit. But if you have much more than that left over from your student loans, for example, then you may be borrowing too much and could pay the price by having too high of a debt load.

How calculated cost of attendance costs may differ from actual costs

It’s possible that the cost of attendance calculated by your college may not be entirely accurate in reality. For example, perhaps your textbook expenses may be more — or less — than the calculations. Or perhaps you have class fees that were not a part of the original formula.

If you believe your cost of attendance does not cover all your actual expenses, you may be able to request a cost of attendance adjustment from your financial aid office. Be sure to properly document all of your expenses to make your case.

How cost of attendance is used to determine financial need

Once your cost of attendance has been calculated by adding up all of the qualifying expenses together, it is then used by the financial aid office to determine your financial need.

Need-based aid

Cost of attendance – Expected family contribution = Need-based aid

It’s this figure — need-based aid — that determines how much you are eligible to receive in the form of federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), direct subsidized loans and work-study programs.

But the use of cost of attendance doesn’t end there. It’s also used to determine non-need-based aid.

Non-need-based aid

Cost of attendance – Financial aid already awarded = Non-need-based aid

Once you have received your need-based aid, which includes any need-based aid and scholarships you were awarded, non-need-based aid is calculated using the formula above. Non-need-based aid encompasses federal direct unsubsidized loans, PLUS loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants.

Borrowing more than the cost of attendance

You may wonder if it’s possible to borrow more than the calculated cost of attendance. The short answer to that is — no, not if you are sticking to federal loans. The calculations are there for a reason. Consider the example given by the Office of Federal Student Aid. The story of a student with a cost of attendance of $16,000 is outlined.

Given the calculations discussed above, if the cost of attendance is $16,000 and the Expected Family Contribution is $12,000, the student’s level of financial need is $4,000. Therefore, the student cannot receive more than $4,000 in need-based aid, including loans and grants. The same student, if they are awarded $4,000 in need-based and private scholarships, is eligible for up to $12,000 in non-need-based aid.

Keep in mind that there are annual limits for federal loans, based on the year in which you are enrolled. For example, if you are a freshman, your annual federal loan limit is $5,500, of which no more than $3,500 may be subsidized. In your third year of college, that limit rises to $7,500, of which no more than $5,500 may be subsidized. The aggregate loan limit for dependent students (aside from those whose parents cannot obtain PLUS loans) is $31,000, of which no more than $23,000 may be unsubsidized.

Beyond federal loans, you might consider private student loans, which may have larger borrowing limits (although you generally cannot borrow more than your cost of attendance with private loans either).

What if you have a 529 plan?

If you are paying for college through a 529 plan, this may affect your ability to receive need-based aid, as it may increase the Expected Family Contribution amount. The amount in decreased eligibility can depend upon who is actually holding the 529 plan, and it is more advantageous for the student if parents can have the plan under their name, rather than holding the account themselves as independent students.

Make sure you understand exactly how your particular 529 plan may affect your needs-based federal aid eligibility. Here’s more on the pros and cons of 529 plans.

Shopping around for the cost of attendance

It’s nice to have your heart set on a specific school. But if the cost of attendance is too high, you may find that the financial aid offer doesn’t help enough to make it an affordable choice for you.

Keep your options open and shop around for your best deal, considering everything you are looking for in a school. That doesn’t have to mean the cheapest option, but it can mean finding an affordable school that fits your needs and doesn’t break your bank.

You can go here to learn about the five things one financial aid expert tells every college student.

Rebecca Stropoli contributed to this report.

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Here are our top student loan lenders of 2020!
LenderVariable APREligibility 
1.09% – 11.98%1Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

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1.25% – 11.10%*,2Undergraduate and Graduate

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1.24% – 11.99%3Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Discover

1.24% – 11.44%4Undergraduate, Graduate, and Parents

Visit Earnest

1.78% – 11.89%5Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit SoFi

2.69% – 12.98%6Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit Ascent

3.52% – 9.50%7Undergraduate and Graduate

Visit CommonBond

* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.

1 Important Disclosures for College Ave.

CollegeAve Disclosures

College Ave Student Loans products are made available through either Firstrust Bank, member FDIC or M.Y. Safra Bank, FSB, member FDIC. All loans are subject to individual approval and adherence to underwriting guidelines. Program restrictions, other terms, and conditions apply.

  1. Rates shown are for the College Ave Undergraduate Loan product and include autopay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.
  2. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a freshman borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 8.35% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $179.18 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $21,501.54. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary. This informational repayment example uses typical loan terms for a first year graduate student borrower who selects the Deferred Repayment Option with a 10-year repayment term, has a $10,000 loan that is disbursed in one disbursement and a 7.10% fixed Annual Percentage Rate (“APR”): 120 monthly payments of $141.66 while in the repayment period, for a total amount of payments of $16,699.21. Loans will never have a full principal and interest monthly payment of less than $50. Your actual rates and repayment terms may vary.

Information advertised valid as of 11/2/2020. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation. Lowest advertised rates require selection of full principal and interest payments with the shortest available loan term.


2 Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.

3 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  2. Students who get at least a 3.0 GPA (or equivalent) qualify for a one-time cash reward on each new Discover undergraduate and graduate student loan. Reward redemption period is limited. Please visit DiscoverStudentLoans.com/Reward for any applicable reward terms and conditions.
  3. Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and Auto Debit Reward. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including undergraduate and graduate loans. The fixed interest rate is set at the time of application and does not change during the life of the loan. The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of October 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Learn more about Discover Student Loans interest rates.
  4. Lowest APRs shown for the Discover Private Consolidation Loan are available for the most creditworthy applicants and include a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.The variable interest rate is calculated based on the 3-Month LIBOR index plus the applicable margin percentage. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 0.250% as of October 1, 2020. Discover Student Loans may adjust the rate quarterly on each January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1 (the “interest rate change date”), based on the 3-Month LIBOR Index, published in the Money Rates section of the Wall Street Journal 15 days prior to the interest rate change date, rounded up to the nearest one-eighth of one percent (0.125% or 0.00125). This may cause the monthly payments to increase, the number of payments to increase or both. Our lowest APR is only available to customers with the best credit and other factors. Your APR will be determined after you apply. It will be based on your credit history, which repayment option you choose and other factors, including your cosigner’s credit history (if applicable). Visit Discover.com/student-loans/consolidation for more information, including up-to-date interest rates and APRs.
Lowest APRs shown for Discover Student Loans are available for the most creditworthy applicants for undergraduate loans, and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

4 Important Disclosures for Earnest.

Earnest Disclosures

  1. Rates include 0.25% Auto Pay Discount
     
  2. Explanation of Rates “With Autopay” (APD)
    Rates shown include 0.25% APR discount when client agrees to make monthly principal and interest payments by automatic electronic payment. Use of autopay is not required to receive an Earnest loan.

    Available Terms
    For Cosigned loans – 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 years. 
    Primary Only – 10, 12, 15 years

    In school deferred payment is not available in AL, AZ, CA, FL, MA, MD, MI, ND, NY, PA, and WA).


5 Important Disclosures for SoFi.

sofiDisclosures

UNDERGRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.23% to 11.26% annual percentage rate (“APR”) (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% to 11.66% APR (with autopay). GRADUATE LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.13% to 11.37% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.78% to 11.73% APR (with autopay). MBA AND LAW SCHOOL LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.30% to 11.52% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.95% to 11.89% APR (with autopay). PARENT LOANS: Fixed rates from 4.60% to 10.76% APR (with autopay), variable rates from 1.88% to 11.16% APR (with autopay). For variable rate loans, the variable interest rate is derived from the one-month LIBOR rate plus a margin and your APR may increase after origination if the LIBOR increases. Changes in the one-month LIBOR rate may cause your monthly payment to increase or decrease. Interest rates for variable rate loans are capped at 13.95%, unless required to be lower to comply with applicable law. Lowest rates are reserved for the most creditworthy borrowers. If approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your creditworthiness, the repayment option you select, the term and amount of the loan and other factors, and will be within the ranges of rates listed above. The SoFi 0.25% autopay interest rate reduction requires you to agree to make monthly principal and interest payments by an automatic monthly deduction from a savings or checking account. The benefit will discontinue and be lost for periods in which you do not pay by automatic deduction from a savings or checking account. Information current as of 11/04/2020. Enrolling in autopay is not required to receive a loan from SoFi. SoFi Lending Corp., licensed by the Department of Business Oversight under the California Financing Law License No. 6054612. NMLS #1121636 (www.nmlsconsumeraccess.org).


6 Important Disclosures for Ascent.

Ascent Disclosures

Before taking out private student loans, you should explore and compare all financial aid alternatives, including grants, scholarships, and federal student loans and consider your future monthly payments and income. Applying with a cosigner may improve your chance of getting approved and could help you qualify for a lower interest rate. Ascent Student Loans may be funded by Richland State Bank (RSB). Ascent Student Loan products are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application, verification of application information and certification of loan amount by a participating school. Loan products may not be available in certain jurisdictions, and certain restrictions, limitations; and terms and conditions may apply. Ascent is a federally registered trademark of Turnstile Capital Management (TCM) and may be used by RSB under limited license. Richland State Bank is a federally registered service mark of Richland State Bank.

  1. Competitive variable rates calculated monthly at the time of loan approval based on a margin plus the 1-Month London Interbank Offered Rate (LIBOR) rounded to the nearest 1/100th of a percent. The current LIBOR is 0.152%, which may adjust monthly. Your interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes. Rates are effective as of 11/01/2020 and reflect an Automatic Payment Discount. Automatic Payment Discount is available if the borrower is enrolled in automatic payments from their personal checking account and the amount is successfully withdrawn from the authorized bank account each month.(See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
    1. Undergraduate Loans: Your variable interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an APR range between 2.69% and 12.98%.  Fixed rate loans will not increase or decrease over the life of the loan and have an APR range between 3.58% and 14.50%. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25% on the lowest offered rate and a 2.00% discount on the highest offered rate. The following table shows a 48 month in-school period plus 9 months of grace prior to a full repayment term of either: 60-months (lowest fixed/variable rate), 144-months (highest fixed rate) or 180-months (highest variable rate) with examples of (i) Interest Only payments, (ii) $25 Minimum payments, and (iii) Deferred repayment options.((See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
    2. Graduate Loans (Graduate, MBA & Law): Your variable interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an APR range between 3.65% and 12.40%. Fixed rate loans will not increase or decrease over the life of the loan and have an APR range between 4.62% and 13.54%. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25%. The following table shows a 36 month in-school period plus 9 months of grace prior to a full repayment term of either: 84-months (lowest fixed/variable rate), 144-months (highest fixed rate), or 180-months (highest variable rate) with examples of (i) Interest Only payments, (ii) $25 Minimum payments, and (iii) Deferred repayment options. (See Graduate Loan repayment examples.)
    3. Medical: Your variable interest rate may increase or decrease, based on LIBOR monthly changes, resulting in an APR range between 3.65% and 12.40%. Fixed rate loans will not increase or decrease over the life of the loan and have an APR range between 4.62% and 13.54%. Rates reflect an Automatic Payment Discount of 0.25%. The following table shows a 48 month in-school period plus 36 months of grace prior to a full repayment term of either: 84-months (lowest fixed/variable rate), 144-months (highest fixed rate), or 240-months (highest variable rate) with examples of (i) Interest Only payments, (ii) $25 Minimum payments, and (iii) Deferred repayment options. (See Medical Loan repayment examples.)
  2. Payments may be deferred. Subject to lender discretion, forbearance and/or deferment options may be available for borrowers who are encountering financial distress.
  3. Making interest only or partial interest payments while in school will not reduce the principal balance of the loan. There are three (3) flexible in-school repayment options that include fully deferred, interest only and $25 minimum repayment. (See Undergraduate Loan repayment examples.)
  4. Flexible repayment plans may be offered up to a fifteen (15) year repayment term for a variable rate loan and ten (10) year repayment term for a fixed rate loan. Students must be enrolled at least half-time at an eligible school. Minimum loan amount is $2,000.
  5. Interest rate reduction of either 0.25% (for Credit-Based Loans) or 2.00% (for Undergraduate Future Income-Based Loans) applies only when the borrower and/or cosigner sign up for automatic payments and the payment amount is successfully deducted from the designated bank account each month. The amount of the discount is dependent upon the loan product and credit history of the borrower at the time of application. Interest rate reduction(s) will not apply during periods when no payment is due, including periods of in-school, deferment, grace or forbearance, unless a regular payment amount has been arranged with the servicer. If you have two (2) consecutive returned payments for Nonsufficient Funds, we may cancel your automatic debit enrollment and you will lose the interest rate reduction. You will then need to re-qualify and re-enroll in automatic debit payments to receive the interest rate reduction.(See Automatic Payment Discount Terms & Conditions.)
  6. All applicants (individual and cosigner) are required to complete a brief online financial literacy course as part of the application process to be eligible for funding.
  7. Eligibility, loan amount and other loan terms are dependent on several factors, which may include: loan product, other financial aid, creditworthiness, school, program, graduation date, major, cost of attendance and other factors. Aggregate loan limits may apply. The cost of attendance is determined and certified by the educational institution.
  8. The legal age for entering into contracts is eighteen (18) years of age in every state except Alabama where it is nineteen (19) years old, Nebraska where it is nineteen (19) years old (only for wards of the state), and Mississippi and Puerto Rico where it is twenty-one (21) years old.
  9. 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward subject to terms and conditions. Click here for details. In order to be eligible for the 1% Cash Back Graduation Reward, borrower must meet the following criteria after graduation:
    • The student borrower has graduated from the degree program that the loan was used to fund.
    • The student borrower may change majors and/or transfer to a different school, but must obtain the same level of degree (e.g. – undergraduate or graduate)
    • The graduation date is more than 90 days and less than five (5) years after the date of the loan’s first disbursement.
    • Any loan that the student has borrowed under the Ascent loan is not more than 30-days delinquent or in a default status as of the graduation date and until any Graduation Reward is paid.
  10. Students can apply to release their cosigner and continue with the loan in only their name after making the first 24 consecutive regularly scheduled full principal and interest payments on-time and meeting the other eligibility criteria to qualify for the loan without a cosigner.

* Application times vary depending on the applicant’s ability to supply the necessary information for submission.


7 Important Disclosures for CommonBond.

CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restriction. Loans are offered by CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS # 1175900), NMLS Consumer Access. If you are approved for a loan, the interest rate offered will depend on your credit profile, your application, the loan term selected and will be within the ranges of rates shown. All Annual Percentage Rates (APRs) displayed assume borrowers enroll in auto pay and account for the 0.25% reduction in interest rate. All variable rates are based on a 1-month LIBOR assumption of 0.17% effective Sep 1, 2020 and may increase after consummation.