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Understanding Cost of College Attendance

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If you have started the process of preparing for your child's college career, you may have run into several things that have you confused — and maybe a few that have you nervous.

Cost of attendance may be the most confusing term you will hear, even though it sounds mostly harmless.

What Cost of Attendance Means

The cost of attendance is rarely the amount paid to attend college. The term “cost of attendance” generally indicates the sticker price and does not consider scholarships, grants, personal contributions (from a college savings plan or graduation checks, for example) and other financial assistance available to your student. Also, most cost of attendance figures include additional costs that may not be encountered — this is important as your student will most likely be presented with a financial aid offer that includes estimated or average amounts for those costs.

Understanding the Aid Offer

Financial aid offers are created by the colleges your student has applied to and are usually sent in February or March. Aid offers outline how much one year of college will cost by detailing the tuition and fees and room and board costs. The document also shows all financial aid (scholarships, grants, work/study funds) your student is eligible to receive as well as the EFC, or expected family contribution. The EFC is based on information you and your student provided on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and may not seem a fair reflection of how much you think your family can contribute to your student’s college costs. As you review the aid offer, consider how might reduce some of the expected cost of attendance.

Transportation Costs

Take a look at transportation costs. Although your student will most likely spend money to travel back and forth from college for visits and holidays, his or her costs may be less than the amount presented.

Two things to consider:

  • Many students are able to come home via car. According to the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA's 2014 freshman survey, approximately 57% of students attend a college within 100 miles of their home. Encourage your student to carpool with other students on a similar route to reduce expenses.
  • Even if you do anticipate your student having travel expenses beyond gas costs, resist the urge to include expected transportation costs in any federal or private student loans you or your student take out. Even tickets to fly home twice a year can be saved for or purchased using earnings from working during the school year. (Bonus: studies show that students who work 10–20 hours a week while in college have better grades and a higher graduation rate as a group.)

You may be able to reduce your bottom line by more than $1,000 in transportation costs.

Book Costs

Another quick way to reduce upfront costs — and the amount you or your student may need to borrow — is to look at the line item for books. You may be able to pay relatively reasonable prices for books by buying loose-leaf books printed on three-hole punched paper or digital versions. Book rental of new and used copies has also helped reduce costs.

Books can often be paid for with cash from savings, earnings or high school graduation gifts. Encourage your student to only purchase physical books that he or she plans to keep — otherwise renting or using other types of texts are smart ways to reduce overall cost of attendance.

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