Cost of Attendance: How Much Does College Really Cost?


Written by: Tracie McGetrick of Student Choice

What does it really cost to go to college these days?

That’s a fair questions and believe me, I receive it a fair amount from students and parents across the country.

First things first, let’s define cost of attendance­, which you may see abbreviated as “COA” on your award letters or cost estimates from colleges. Cost of attendance is the sum of money set by a college/university for a student to attend school, in many ways as if it were their full-time job. Each college you ask will have a different COA as the costs associated with each school will vary (you can ask the financial aid office what their COA is), but in general COA is meant to cover fixed and flexible expenses of attending college.

Did you know that there are only two true fixed costs in the cost of attendance?

No matter where the school is in the country or what type of higher education institution you plan to attend – public, private or community college. The only two fixed costs are tuition and fees. Everything else you pay for such as room and board (shelter and food) and other personal (some colleges call this miscellaneous) expenses are considered flexible costs. That’s the reason what you pay varies not only by the school you choose to attend, but also by the choices you and your family make.

Those choices will certainly vary for every student. In fact, I have a colleague who will tell you that she used her personal expenses (included in her COA) to buy a winter coat and some warm clothes. She attended college in New England after growing up in Louisiana, so these were very real needs. Of course, you still have to be smart when considering the COA at your college, especially if you plan to borrow to cover the entire cost. Let’s take a look at how these expenses break down.

Fixed Costs

Tuition is the cost for the student to attend classes and earn credit. Tuition dollars are exchanged for credit hours. Typically 12 – 18 credits are considered full-time, averaging out to about 4-6 classes per term. The money you pay goes toward paying for things such as salaries for administration and faculty (professors), building and grounds upkeep, keeping the lights on and the water running, and for lots of schools, paying down the debt incurred for new buildings on campus. All these costs add up to the tuition cost for a student.

Fees can be assessed for pretty much anything, but commonly for services, clubs and activities. The Activity Fee is pretty standard and charged by most colleges for access to amenities such as on-campus student athletic facilities, libraries and student centers. Other fees you could see are for Health Insurance, Parking, Technology, Labs, and let’s not forget that an Enrollment Fee is often assessed just for registering for classes.

Now, don’t get discouraged by all this, there is still some flexibility when it comes to paying for school. There are also flexible costs.

Flexible Costs

So, where is the flexibility when it comes to the cost of attendance? It depends on the school, but below are some items that may offer options in pricing and can help you drive down the cost of attendance!

  • Books
    Books can be expensive and the COA includes the price of new books from the campus book store.  And to make things worse, sometimes students may need more than one book for the same course. The good news is that in many cases there isn’t really any need to purchase new books. Students can buy used books or rent new ones, and on some campuses there are even book swapping websites where you can exchange a book from a previous class to receive a book you need for an upcoming one. Finally, in today’s environment of iPads, Kindle Fires and a new tablet every week you can download text books from sites like Amazon for a fraction of the cost of a printed book. And if all else fails, sharing a book with a study-mate and splitting the cost can be just what your budget ordered!
  • Housing
    Although some colleges require students to live on campus for their first year, there is still flexibility in your housing choice. If you choose to live on campus or commute those costs are calculated accordingly and your COA will change. If you decide to live on campus, consider your room options; do they offer the option of a suite versus a double or in some cases a quad? A good rule of thumb: the more people sharing a bathroom, the lower the cost of the dorm room!
  • Food
    On some campuses it’s like Disney World when it comes to choosing a food plan. When you get your school bill most likely what has been rolled up for the food costs is their most expensive option – 3 full meals and two snacks a day to support the infamous “Freshman 15.” If there are food plan options at the school, consider your eating habits. Take me for example; I’m a girl who, most mornings, doesn’t eat breakfast, likes to graze all day, and then eats a good dinner. Why, then, should I pay for food that I’m not going to eat? Get the plan that makes sense for you (and if you go over, your school will happily sell you more meal credits). And remember your friends can pay for their own food!
  • Personal/Misc. Expenses
    For many, this will be an amount deemed for expenses that may arise organically for a student to attend school. I’m talking about covering costs that can come up when a student goes away to school, like the colleague I spoke of earlier who needed a warm coat and some winter clothes. Or the money may be necessary to pay a monthly bill for your cell phone. Keep in mind, however, that students in many cases borrow money to assist in covering the cost of attendance, so if family help is provided, or you are going to get a part time job, this is an area where you can really make a “cut” in your overall cost of attendance. Remember, anything you cut now, you don’t have to pay back later!
  • Transportation
    Schools may provide a transportation budget, especially if you commute. Take some time to understand how often you will need to use transportation and what your options are, including all types of public transportation. Transportation costs can vary greatly between environment and proximity to home. For example, if you are going to school in LA but live in NYC, the cost to travel home for the holidays and/or to and from school may need to be included in your overall transportation costs. Do your homework. This is another area that gives you the opportunity to eliminate unnecessary costs – just don’t forget to go see your family every once in a while!

In the end, the school you choose to go to and the college experience you choose to have is up to you and your family. The more you know about what financial aid a college is offering you and where you have options to reduce the overall cost of attendance, the better prepared you are to get the most out of your college experience – happy budgeting!

Still need help with planning your college budget – contact your local credit union today.

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One thought on “Cost of Attendance: How Much Does College Really Cost?

  1. Pingback: How to Pay Remaining College Costs and Fill the Gap | Student Choice Blog

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