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 largely based on the college’s cost of attendance. Yet, few people understand what this important figure really means.

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

Cost of attendance definition

What is cost of attendance, exactly? The cost of attendance, or COA, 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, though, the cost of attendance should not be confused with what you are actually going to pay for college.

What you end up paying out-of-pocket will depend on how much financial aid you get first. That’s where COA comes into play — it’s one of four factors used by financial aid offices to determine your financial aid eligibility.

Expenses included in COA

While the cost will vary from school to school, the categories of school expenses included in COA 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 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.
  • Childcare 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 COA timeframe may be longer for certain certification programs.

It’s also worth noting that the cost of attendance is generally higher for graduate students.

There is one circumstance in which this list of included expenses will vary. If you are attending school less than half-time, the cost of attendance may or may not include room and board, for example.

Expenses not included in COA

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

  • Car payments or insurance (the COA allowance for transportation is limited to the cost of commuting and parking)
  • Credit card debt
  • A new wardrobe
  • Travel

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’re probably borrowing too much and will pay the price later.

How COA 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), Federal Direct Subsidized Loans, and Federal Work-Study.

But the use of COA 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 (e.g. scholarships) = Non-need-based aid

Non-need-based aid determines your eligibility for Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans, Federal PLUS Loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants.

Shopping around for the best COA

It’s a good thing 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 the best deal. That doesn’t have to mean the cheapest option, but it can mean finding an affordable school that doesn’t break your bank for the next 10 to 20 years.

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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)All rates shown include the auto-pay 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.

(3)As certified by your school and less any other financial aid you might receive. Minimum $1,000.

Information advertised valid as of 11/08/2019. Variable interest rates may increase after consummation.


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3 Important Disclosures for Discover.

Discover Disclosures

  1. 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.
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  3. Aggregate loan limits apply.
  4. Lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments. The interest rate ranges represent the lowest interest rate offered on the Discover Undergraduate Loan and highest interest rates offered on Discover student loans, including Undergraduate, Graduate, Health Professions, Law and MBA 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. The margin is based on your credit evaluation at the time of application and does not change. For variable interest rate loans, the 3-Month LIBOR is 2.50% as of July 1, 2019. Discover Student Loans will 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. Please visit discover.com/student-loans/interest-rates for more information about interest rates.
Discover's lowest rates shown are for the undergraduate loan and include an interest-only repayment discount and a 0.25% interest rate reduction while enrolled in automatic payments.

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CommonBond Disclosures

Offered terms are subject to change and state law restrictions. Loans are offered through CommonBond Lending, LLC (NMLS #1175900).

  1.  Rates are as of July 1, 2019 and include auto-pay discount. All loans are eligible for a 0.25% reduction in interest rate by agreeing to automatic payment withdrawals once in repayment. Variable rates may increase after consummation.

5 Important Disclosures for Citizens.

Citizens Disclosures

Undergraduate Rate Disclosure: Variable rate, based on the one-month London Interbank Offered Rate (“LIBOR”) published in The Wall Street Journal on the twenty-fifth day, or the next business day, of the preceding calendar month. As of November 1, 2019, the one-month LIBOR rate is 1.80%. Variable interest rates range from 2.90% – 11.16% (2.90% – 11.01% APR) and will fluctuate over the term of the loan with changes in the LIBOR rate, and will vary based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Fixed interest rates range from 4.72% – 12.19% (4.72% – 12.04% APR) based on applicable terms, level of degree earned and presence of a co-signer. Lowest rates shown requires application with a co-signer, are for eligible applicants, require a 5-year repayment term, borrower making scheduled payments while in school and include our Loyalty and Automatic Payment discounts of 0.25 percentage points each, as outlined in the Loyalty Discount and Automatic Payment Discount disclosures. Subject to additional terms and conditions, and rates are subject to change at any time without notice. Such changes will only apply to applications taken after the effective date of change. Please note: Due to federal regulations, Citizens Bank is required to provide every potential borrower with disclosure information before they apply for a private student loan. The borrower will be presented with an Application Disclosure and an Approval Disclosure within the application process before they accept the terms and conditions of the loan.

Citizens Bank Student Loan Eligibility: Borrowers must be enrolled at least half-time in a degree-granting program at an eligible institution. Borrowers must be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident or an international borrower/eligible non-citizen with a creditworthy U.S. citizen or permanent resident co-signer. For borrowers who have not attained the age of majority in their state of residence, a co-signer is required. Citizens Bank reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at anytime. Interest rate ranges subject to change. Citizens Bank private student loans are subject to credit qualification, completion of a loan application/consumer credit agreement, verification of application information, and if applicable, self-certification form, school certification of the loan amount, and student’s enrollment at a Citizens Bank- participating school. 

Please Note: International Students are not eligible for the multi-year approval feature.

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