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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

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.

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.


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