What Is Cost of Attendance?

Two people sit on an apartment floor reviewing college costs
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DEFINITION
Cost of attendance is the total estimated price for one year at a college, and schools use it to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid.

Cost of attendance (COA) is the amount of money it will cost a student to go to a particular college for one academic year. The cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, and other expenses. Colleges and universities use an estimated COA to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid.

Understanding how the cost of attendance is calculated and what it includes can help students learn how it impacts their eligibility for financial aid and student loans, and what it might mean for their overall budget.

Definition of Cost of Attendance

COA is the estimated total cost of going to a particular college for one school year. Every college and university in the U.S. is legally required to provide a COA for its students.

The COA includes tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, dependent care, disability or study-abroad expenses, and other miscellaneous costs. It also varies based on factors such as the student’s:

  • Enrollment status (full time or part time)
  • Degree program (graduate or undergraduate)
  • Residency (whether the student lives on or off campus; whether they pay in-state or out-of-state tuition)

The school combines these expenses to generate an average COA for students for that particular academic year. Once the COA is calculated, the school and Federal Student Aid (FSA) use it as a baseline to determine a student’s financial-aid eligibility and establish their financial need for grants, loans, and work-study positions. It also sets a limit on the total amount of aid a student can receive.

  • Alternate names: Estimated budget, student budget, sticker price
  • Acronym: COA

How Cost of Attendance Works

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) legally defines what costs are allowed to be included in the COA. It is up to the individual school to determine the COA categories that will be applied to the student. Most schools include a fall and spring semester in their COAs, but institutions that offer programs over different time periods (such as an 18-month certification program) may instead provide COAs that cover those durations.

This estimated total COA includes both direct and indirect costs incurred during a student’s upcoming academic year. Direct costs are expenses billed directly to students, such as tuition, mandatory fees, housing, and meal plans. Indirect costs are expenses students aren’t billed for but pay indirectly, such as costs for books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, and other personal expenses (e.g., a laptop).

Colleges and universities typically post general COAs on their websites. Potential students can use these numbers to compare the COAs at several schools to get an idea of what they might pay to attend each one.

When comparing COAs between schools, prospective students should remember that while this total may seem high, it’s more of a sticker price than what they might actually pay. That’s because the COA doesn’t factor in financial aid, and because actual costs will vary depending on factors such as course load, meal plans, residency, transportation, and housing.

Once the student chooses a school and receives their final COA figure, this number is used as the basis for financial-need calculations to determine whether or not they qualify for federal student-aid programs and loans.

How Cost of Attendance Affects Financial Aid

Most college students will fill out the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine their eligibility for financial aid. Filling out the FAFSA requires information regarding the student’s family size, income, taxes, and benefits. This information will be used to calculate the student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The college then uses the student’s EFC to determine the amount of financial aid they are eligible to receive.

Using COA To Calculate Financial Need

When a student applies for financial aid through their school’s financial assistance office, the office will subtract the student’s EFC from the COA to determine their financial need.

This number determines how much need-based aid the student may qualify for, including federal Pell Grants, direct subsidized loans, federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG), and Federal Work-Study (FWS) programs.

For example, if your COA is $20,000 and your EFC is $5,000, then your financial need is $15,000. You will be eligible for up to $15,000 in need-based aid.

Using COA To Calculate Non-Need-Based Aid


If students want to know how much non-need-based aid they can receive, they will need to subtract any financial aid they’ve already been awarded from their COA. The EFC does not apply to this formula.

For example, if your COA is $20,000 and you’ve received $7,000 in need-based aid and private scholarships so far, then you’re eligible to receive up to $13,000 in non-need-based aid. This type of aid includes direct unsubsidized loans, federal PLUS loans, and Teacher Education Access for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grants.

Key Takeaways

  • The cost of attendance (COA) is the average price to attend a college or university for an academic year.
  • COA includes tuition, books and supplies, transportation, room and board, meal plans, loan fees, dependent care, personal expenses, and more.
  • Federal law requires colleges and universities to provide students with a COA.
  • The COA is used to determine a student’s financial-aid eligibility.

Article Sources

  1. Federal Student Aid. “2020-2021 Federal Student Aid Handbook: Ch. 2. Cost of Attendance (Budget).” Accessed Dec. 17, 2021.

  2. Federal Student Aid. “How Aid Is Calculated.” See “What Is Need-Based Aid and How Does My School Figure Out How Much I’ll Get?” Accessed Dec. 17, 2021.