The Cost of Attendance

Person writing a checkWhat is college really going to cost? That’s a question on the minds of lots of students and (especially) parents. It is sometimes hard to get a sense for the total cost because there are so many components to a school’s “sticker price.” Then there are a bunch of factors, like scholarships and other forms of financial aid, that affect how much you really pay. A good way to think about it is to calculate the full sticker price of a college, then understand you’ll probably be paying significantly less due to financial aid.

Where to start

The COA (Cost of Attendance) is the figure people generally prepare for when they plan out their college finances, and it includes tuition, room and board, and other related incidentals, like textbooks. Calculated by each individual institution, this figure appears to be comprehensive but doesn’t include a lot of extraneous costs you might incur as a student. Look for an itemized list of the institution’s estimated incidental costs and think of ways to reduce them.

Plan ahead so you can cover those costs, too. Think about:

Travel Expenses

If college is far away from home, it’s smart to plan ahead and know how often you’ll return home, how you’ll get there, and what it will cost to do so. If your school doesn’t provide for a travel allowance when calculating the cost of attendance, call the financial aid office and explain that you will have increased costs over students who live nearby. Doing so will increase your demonstrated need and could result in additional financial aid.

Even if a travel allowance is already in your COA, or the financial aid office doesn’t award you an increased aid package, planning ahead will help you avoid a holiday catastrophe. Nobody wants to miss Thanksgiving because they couldn’t afford a ticket home, right? Check with airlines to see if they have any special rates for students attending colleges near a destination served by that airline. Call the college and ask about any student discounts on travel. Consider taking a train or a bus.

Meal Plans

Consider your meal plan options. Some meal plans force you to use the balance before the end of each year or semester while others are more flexible. It’s hard to know how often you’ll hit the campus cafeteria before you get there, but know that even if you live in a dorm, you will likely have access to a kitchen where you could prepare your own, inexpensive meals. An important note: if you do buy a full meal plan, use it more and cut back on eating out.

Text Books

Textbooks are the main cost besides tuition, room, and board. Do you need every book on the required reading list? Can you buy used, rent, or use the library?

Local Transportation and Parking

With the price of gas, a parking pass, insurance and those inevitable parking tickets, having a car in college is usually more hassle than it’s worth. Check out alternative means of transport: campus or city buses and subways are a cheaper alternative if they’re available. Often they have student discounts. Or get a bike. Learn to rollerblade. Ride a miniature horse to class. As a last resort you can always practice your walking skills.


The college experience isn’t only about studying. A student’s got to live life or they’ll burn out, right? So live it up but do so on a budget. Think chicken instead of lobster. Also use our Student Deals to score savings on stuff you want and need. And don’t forget about other deal sites like Groupon or LivingSocial, which can help you save even more money on restaurants, movies, and other activities. The point is: plan to spend money on having fun, because you’re going to do it anyway. If you plan ahead, then at least you’re unlikely to spend your way into a financial pickle. Other little ways to save:

  • Order water at restaurants. This can easily save you $5 a meal.
  • Get a coffee pot and brew your own at home. Axing Starbucks from your routine could save you $100 a month.
  • Consider cheaper alternatives to “going out”—think potlucks with friends, or just enjoy the outdoors. Go swimming in a river, picnic in the park, or see if any local museums have free days.
Other Incidentals

Remember to include personal expenses. They add up. Budget for things like medication, laundry, haircuts, clothing, and phone bills. Think about all that extra stuff that just “pops up”—everything from moving expenses, back to school purchases, or even $10 for a wall poster. Point being: know what money you have, and spend less than that number. As we’ve said a million times and will continue to say: the best way to do that is creating a monthly budget and never exceeding it.

Unsubsidized loans

student-loans-neededOne cost that most never consider is the cost of unsubsidized federal student loans and private student loans. These loans usually can be deferred while you are in college, but often accrue interest for the duration of your undergrad studies and wind up costing you more in the long run (than subsidized federal loans). If you can, it is a good idea to start paying off unsubsidized loans while you are still in college. That, too, has a cost that should be figured into your needs while you are still in college. If you can barely subsist on your personal funds at school, however, it would be foolish to try and begin repaying your loans right then and there. But always stay on the lookout for extra money you can use to pay back those loans. It’ll be worth it in the long run.
Other school fees.

Colleges across the country are raising tuition and fees to help fill the gap between their earnings and their costs, which unfortunately means you’re going to pay more throughout your education. But it always pays to know your costs and plan ahead for them. It’s also important to check if these costs were included in your original COA, because if they weren’t, paying them could increase your demonstrated need and therefore your financial aid package.

The Scholarship Center

Expected Costs
  1. Application and registration fees. For those of you who haven’t applied to college yet, know that the pleasure of turning in an application often costs money. And for everyone else, know the fees don’t stop there. Schools often charge extra registration fees, especially for things like winter or summer sessions.
  2. Freshman orientation fee. If you’re a freshman, you often can move onto campus early, get settled, and learn about the campus through an organized set of talks, tours, and parties. But sometimes it’s not optional. And it’s almost never free. Plan on paying up to $200.
  3. Technology. This is a standard fee most schools charge to cover things like computer labs and outfitting classrooms with projectors or other displays. Fees depend on the school, but some charge as much as $400 per year.
  4. Student activities. You pay to participate. Extracurricular activities may appear to be free, but every student is charged as part of their tuition payment.
  5. Health care. Most colleges offer insurance plans to their students. Some schools require it, and it’s never cheap. Many charge up to $2,000 a year for the service.
  6. Other miscellaneous fees. Maybe they charge an identification card fee, or extra lab fees for certain classes, or even for Greek life. Point being: it pays to know what you owe, so always ask ahead of time.

A note on tuition hikes

If you’re planning ahead and prospective schools list this year’s prices but not next year’s, add 5% as a reasonable expectation of future costs.


Financial Aid Basics