A college’s annual cost of attendance, also known as the sticker price, includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, supplies and equipment, transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses. The cost of attendance may also include dependent care costs and special needs expenses.

The cost of attendance can vary depending on where the student lives while enrolled and the student’s enrollment status.

[Read Hidden College Costs for information about college costs that are not included in the cost of attendance.]

Student Budgets

To add to the mix, a college’s cost of attendance (COA) may involve as many as four different student budgets. The student budgets differ depending on where the student lives while enrolled.

  • Students who live on campus in college owned or operated housing
  • Students who live off campus in an apartment
  • Students who live off campus with their parents
  • Students who live in military housing

On-campus housing includes dormitories and other residences. Students who live on campus may be called “residents” while students who live off-campus may be called “commuter students.”

Each student budget may have different room, board and transportation costs.

Enrollment Status

The cost of attendance may vary based on the student’s enrollment status. Full-time enrollment typically involves 12 credits or more, with 15 credits required for the student to graduate in four years. . Part-time enrollment is anything below 12 credits.

Some colleges prorate the cost of attendance according to the student’s enrollment status, charging by the credit. Others offer a flat rate for full-time enrollment.

Summer enrollment is not included in the cost of attendance. Most colleges split cost of attendance equally for fall and spring terms, but charge per credit or a different full-time tuition rate during the summer session.

Components of the Cost of Attendance

Some colleges like to distinguish between direct and indirect costs. Direct costs are costs that are paid directly to the college, such as tuition and fees. Indirect costs are paid to a third party. Some colleges will list only the direct costs on their financial aid award letters, instead of the full sticker price. The definition of what is included in the direct costs can also vary from college to college.

Direct costs may include the following components:

  • Tuition. Tuition is the cost of teaching and instruction to the student.
  • Required Fees. College fees may be bundled into a comprehensive fee, or may be broken into several lines of the student budget. The fees can cover on-campus computer labs, printing costs, student health services, student activities and residence hall activities, among other fees.
  • Room & Board. Room and board is the amount charged for housing and meals. On-campus housing may include dorm rooms (single, double, triple and quad-occupancy), fraternities and sororities, and private apartments. Meal plans may vary according to the number of meals and whether the residence includes its own dining hall. If you’re pinching pennies, consider a more modest room and meal plan.
  • Books, supplies and equipment. The allowance for textbooks is often based on an average based on books sold by the college bookstore. This is almost always going to be a low estimate because lots of students buy or rent their books from online retailers or buy them from each other secondhand. The cost of books and supplies can also vary widely depending on the student’s major. Some classes may have an extra lab fee to cover the cost of supplies, equipment and other materials.

Indirect costs may include the following components of the cost of attendance:

  • Transportation. Transportation is the cost of the student getting to and from the college campus.
  • Computer. Most colleges limit students to buying a computer once during their college career. 
  • Miscellaneous and Personal Expenses. Miscellaneous and personal expenses are intended to cover living expenses like clothing, laundry, personal hygiene, entertainment and health insurance.
  • Loan Fees. Loan fees, such as origination and default/guarantee fees, may be added to the cost of attendance


Adjustments to the Cost of Attendance

Most cost of attendance allowances are based on average figures, not actual figures. Some colleges use surveys to calculate the average costs or adjust last year’s figures by inflation. Others rely on annual figures published by the College Board.

If the student’s actual costs are higher, they should appeal to the college financial aid administrator for an increase in the cost of attendance, which can to an increase in the student’s financial aid package. It is best to save receipts as proof of the actual costs.

The allowances for textbook and transportation costs are often underestimated.

Transportation costs may differ depending on whether the student is a campus resident or a commuter student. The transportation costs for students who live on campus may be based on the cost for a student to travel to and from home during breaks and holidays. The transportation costs for commuter students may be based on a mileage rate, which implicitly includes the cost of gas, maintenance and insurance, plus the cost of on-campus parking.

Other components of the cost of attendance, such as dependent care costs and disability-related expenses, are appealable items for students who have these expenses.