Cost of Attendance and Expected Family Contribution

The cost of attendance (COA) is an estimate of how much it costs to attend college for one year, including all reasonable expenses. A college or university will generally publish the cost of attendance on its website or in the financial aid office.

When creating their college action plan and budgeting for college, most people look at the tuition and assume that it's more or less the "price tag" for that school; however, the reality is that tuition may be as little as 50% of the overall budget. Here are some sample costs of attendance from a survey done by TheStreet.com:

  • Prestige school (Ivy League or near-Ivy League):
    • Tuition: $40,000
    • Room/board: $12,500
    • Books & supplies: $1,500
    • Plus similar costs for personal expenses and transportation.
    • Total cost: an estimated $53,000 - $60,000 per year.
  • Private four year university/school:
    • Tuition: $19,000
    • Room/board: $11,250
    • Books & supplies: $1,200
    • Plus costs for personal expenses and transportation.
    • Total cost: an estimated $32,000 per year.
  • Public school (in-state/out-of-state):
    • Tuition: $8,500/$15,000
    • Room/board: $7,000/$7,000
    • Books/supplies $1,000
    • Plus expenses and transportation.
    • Total cost: an estimated $18,000/$26,000 per year.

The fact that state and public universities are broken out into a separate category is an indication of price range, not quality. Some public universities are as well regarded, or even more prestigious, than their private university counterparts.

Influence of Financial Aid on Cost of Attendance

A school's financial aid office generally determines the programs and amount of aid an applicant receives. This involves determining the cost of attending the college, calculating a student's Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and then awarding aid to meet the difference between the two (the calculated financial need).

Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The EFC is the amount a family can be expected to contribute toward a student's college costs. Financial aid administrators determine an applicant's need for federal student aid from the U.S. Department of Education and other non-federal sources of assistance by subtracting the EFC from the student's cost of attendance.

The methodology for determining the EFC is found in Part F of Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA).

Source of Data used in EFC Calculations

Financial aid administrators use the information from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), including the EFC, to develop a financial aid package. This package specifies the types and amounts of non-federal aid a student will receive to cover his or her education-related expenses up to COA. Because funds are limited, the amount awarded to a student may fall short of the amount of aid for which the student is eligible.

A student may submit a FAFSA online at FAFSA on the Web.

Students who applied for federal student aid in the previous award year may be eligible to reapply by filing a FAFSA Renewal. Applying for federal aid is free. To be considered for non-federal aid (such as institutional aid), a student may have to fill out additional forms and pay a processing fee.

We encourage applicants to complete the appropriate electronic version of the FAFSA rather than a paper FAFSA because the electronic versions contain additional instructions and help features, have built-in edits that reduce applicant error, and allow the Department to send application results to students and schools sooner.

When Awarded Aid Falls Short of Cost of Attendance

If the aid a student is awarded comes short of the COA, alternative student loans bridge the gap. For example, let's say that a student enrolled in a private 4-year university is awarded the maximum amount of federal aid for Pell Grants, Perkins Loans, and Stafford Loans as a freshman. That means:

  • Perkins Loan - maximum of $5,500
  • Stafford Loan - maximum of $3,500 (amount varies depending on grade-level)
  • FSEOG - maximum of $4,000
  • Pell Grant - maximum of $5,500

The student's federal financial aid package stands at $18,950. Let's also assume that the student receives $2,000 in scholarships and an additional $5,000 in state and institutional financial aid. That puts their aid package at $25,950, which will almost cover tuition. They will have about $6,050 in tuition to cover, plus the remaining expenses.

For this financial gap, an alternative student loan is available throughout the year. It can offer up to $45,000 per academic year, which finishes off the costs of attending at more expensive schools.