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How Colleges Figure Cost of Attendance

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A college's "cost of attendance" — the average cost to attend for a single year — is one of the biggest factors in your financial aid award.

Knowing a college's "cost of attendance" (COA) is critical when comparing aid awards. A college with a high COA may offer a generous aid package but still be more expensive than one with a much lower COA.

What's Included in the COA

As dictated by Congress, the COA is the average cost to attend for one academic year (fall through spring). It includes tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and personal expenses. Colleges adjust the COA yearly to reflect changes to these costs.

How the COA Drives Your Financial Aid

Colleges subtract your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from the their COA to calculate your need for financial aid. The higher the college's COA, the more aid you might be eligible for. Your EFC is a number determined by the information you provide on your financial aid forms. 

Colleges create several official COAs that reflect differences in living costs (on-campus, off-campus, or at home) and in-state and out-of-state tuition. Your actual cost to attend might be more than the official COA depending on your major, participation in extracurricular activities, and travel expenses.

Examples of Private and Public COA's

Here are some COAs that colleges reported for the 2021-2022 academic year. These costs are for undergraduates living on campus and enrolled in liberal arts programs.

Private colleges:
Cornell University (Ithaca, NY) – $83,296
Duke University (Durham, NC) – $82,748
Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA) – $79,228
Rice University (Houston, TX) – $74,110
Stanford University (Palo Alto, CA) – $80,740
Swarthmore College (Swarthmore, PA) – $79,579

Public colleges (for state residents):
University of Arizona (Tucson) – $33,014
University of California (Berkeley) – $43,745
University of Idaho (Moscow) – $22,846
University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill) – $25,202
University of Massachusetts (Amherst) – $31,718
University of Michigan (Ann Arbor) – $33,551

COA and Net Price

Your bottom line to attend any college is not the COA — it's the net price — the total out-of-pocket cost that you will actually pay. Net price includes the amount the college expects you and your family to contribute, any financial need that the college fails to meet, and any loans or work-study earnings (these forms of aid do not reduce what you pay out-of-pocket for college).

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