What is the Cost of Attendance: A Guide for Parents

Last updated on - May 5, 2024

What is the Cost of Attendance: A Guide for Parents

As a parent of a high school student, you may have heard the term "cost of attendance" thrown around when talking about college. But what exactly is the cost of attendance, and why is it important for you to understand?

Understanding key terms like "cost of attendance" will allow you to understand how colleges award financial aid. As a result, you might be able to better position yourself to get more financial aid.

What is cost of attendance?

The cost of attendance (COA), often referred to as the “sticker price”, is the total amount of money it will cost for your child to go to college for one year. It includes tuition and other things like housing, food, books, transportation, and personal expenses.

So, when you see the COA for a college, it's the full price tag for attending that school for a year. This information is usually available on the college's website.

Why is it important?

Understanding the cost of attendance (COA) is crucial because it helps you plan financially for your child's college education. By knowing how much college will cost, you can start thinking about how to pay for it and what financial aid your child might need.

To be sure, most families do not pay the full COA listed on a college’s website. Instead, they pay what is called a net price which is different for every family based on the information they provide in the FAFSA and/or CSS PROFILE.

>>RELATED POST: How to Apply for Financial Aid

How do you calculate the cost of attendance?

Several different expenses make up the cost of attendance, including the following:

  • Tuition: This is the money you pay for your child's classes. It can vary depending on whether the college is public or private, in-state or out-of-state, and whether it's a two-year or four-year school.
  • Room and Board: These are the costs for housing and food. If your child lives on campus, this includes dormitory fees and meal plans. If they live off-campus, it includes rent and groceries.
  • Books and Supplies: Your child will need textbooks, notebooks, pens, and other supplies for their classes. These costs can add up, especially if they have to buy expensive textbooks.
  • Transportation: This includes the cost of getting to and from college, whether by car, bus, train, or plane. It also includes any travel expenses during breaks or holidays.
  • Personal Expenses: These are things like clothing, toiletries, laundry, and entertainment. It's important to budget for these expenses so your child has enough money for everything they need.

Will I pay the full cost of attendance?

No, very few students actually pay the advertised cost of attendance for college. The "net price" is what families typically pay after taking into account scholarships and grants.

Understanding your net price is key when looking at college costs. While the cost of attendance shows all the expenses for college, the net price shows what you really pay after financial aid and scholarships. For example, some colleges COA is closing in on $100,000. If you visit USC's, NYU's or Vanderbilt's website, you'll see it's about $5,000-$7,000 away from six figures. However, most families never pay full price. In planning for college, it's more important to know your estimated net price so you know which colleges are more affordable.

>>RELATED POST: How to Use the Net Price Calculator

To find your net price, use the net price calculator on the college's website to get an estimate of your out of pocket costs. Each college is required to have a calculator on their website. If it's hard to find, just Google the college's name and "net price calculator".

Keep in mind, all calculators are not created equal. The results vary based on how much information you are asked to input. Colleges that use the College Board's net price calculator tend to provide better estimates. By comparing net prices, you can find the best value for your money and avoid taking on too much student loan debt. Knowing your net price is important for making smart decisions about where to go to college.

Can I reduce my overall cost of attending college?

Yes, there are several strategies to help reduce the overall cost of attendance:

  • Apply for scholarships: Encourage your child to actively seek out and apply for scholarships based on their academic achievements, talents, interests, and demographics. Scholarships can significantly offset college expenses. Start local where you'll have the best chance of success. I've sat on scholarship committees and literally had to keep begging local high schools to solicit applications from their student population. Some students assume that you have to be an "A" student to win. However, there are countless scholarships for students with all academic ability.
  • Apply for financial aid: Don't assume that you won't qualify for financial aid. There are many different types of aid available—some merit based and some need-based, so it's worth taking advantage all your options. Plus, some colleges will will award scholarships to families who make high six-figure income, or ask you to complete a financial aid application to get merit aid. 
  • Consider attending an early college high school: You can earn an associate's degree while earning your high school diploma, saving about 50% on college costs. See if there is one in your city. Some people think these programs might keep their student from getting into a selective four-year college, but that's not true. My daughters started their college careers in an early college program and have never looked back. In applying to college, they received acceptance letters from colleges with varying degree of selectivity, including highly selective ones. One daughter later received a graduate school fellowship, and the other is about to earn her doctorate from Vanderbilt.
  • Consider community college for the first two years: Starting at a community college can be an affordable alternative to traditional four-year colleges. Your child can transfer credits to a four-year institution to complete their degree. In some cases, students can complete three years at the community college and one year at the four-year college through which they'll earn their Bachelor's. For example, Washtenaw Community College in Michigan has an articulation agreement with some universities that do just that.
  • Look for cost-saving opportunities: Compare costs between different colleges and universities, consider living off-campus to reduce housing expenses, and explore textbook rental or digital options to save on course materials. If you have a great college in your area, why not attend college while living at home. You'll save yourself a lot of money. Some students are so eager to get away from their parents that they take on too much student debt. 

>>RELATED: CHECK OUT MY NEW BOOK! Learn the Secrets to Saving Big on College


Understanding what is cost of attendance is an important part of planning for your child's college education. By knowing how much college will cost and what financial aid is available, you can make informed decisions about where your child will go to college. Remember, you're not alone in this process—there are resources available to help you every step of the way.

Want to learn the tips, tricks and strategies to win scholarships?

Subscribe below to receive our free Scholarship Essay Guide

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.


and learn how to find and win scholarships.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.