What does COA mean?
COA stands for cost of attendance which is how much it will cost a student to attend a college for a year. This is not the same thing as what a college charges. It is a federally defined term that is meant to estimate how much students spend to complete a year of college. This includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, supplies, and transportation. Depending on the student, it can include dependent care, costs related to a disability, or costs for eligible study-abroad programs.
How does COA affect how much you pay for college?
COA can affect how much you pay for college through direct and indirect ways. The direct way is that students’ financial aid cannot exceed the cost of attendance. The problem is that the three ways COA is generally calculated, living on-campus, off-campus, and at home, may not account for an individual student’s actual costs.
An obvious area where the costs may differ among students is travel costs to school. The cost would be much higher for a student from Virginia to attend a California college compared to a state resident. Other areas that can increase the cost are extra fees and supplies associated with specific majors. Ultimately, students can appeal to the college’s financial aid office for an adjustment to the cost of attendance.
It’s a Big Number
The indirect way COA can affect how much you pay is that too often, it’s simply not reported. Instead, you’ll see the tuition and fees being listed when comparing colleges. If you look up schools on the College Board’s Big Future website or US News Best College ranking, the first number you’ll see is the tuition and fee costs.
Both will eventually show the numbers that include room and board. However, only Big Future includes all the components of the Cost of Attendance and actually provides the totals. This can make colleges appear less expensive than they actually are.
Of course, you can make the argument that they want to make sure students are comparing apples to apples. After all, some students will live more cheaply off campus than other students so the focus should just be on tuition. With the cost of attendance passing $70,000 at some colleges, it seems it would be better for the families, not necessarily the schools, if they start with the maximum costs, rather than the far less likely minimum tuition cost.
Where can you learn more?
Funding the Total Cost of Attendance (perspective from the college side)
For Athletes on Scholarship Cost of attendance Q&A
Connect with other parents figuring out how to pay for college
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