Skip to main content

Understanding Cost of College Attendance

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 pretty straightforward.

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. This is based on the Student Aid Index (SAI) number. The SAI 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 financial aid you think your family needs. As you review the aid offer, consider how to 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 live close enough to come home via car. 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 and Material 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 and materials. 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. Renting new or used copies can also help reduce costs.

Books and other required materials 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.

Share this article

Sign up for college planning information

Subscribe now

Related Articles

Find this article interesting? Check out the articles below on similar topics.

Understanding Student Aid

An integral part of the college financial aid process is the Student Aid Index, or SAI. This number is the basis for the amount of financial aid made available to a student.

Student Loan Basics: What Parents and Cosigners Need to Know

Are you ready to be financially liable? If you are considering taking on a federal parent loan or cosigning a private student loan with your student, consider these important points.

Parents: What You Should Know Before Applying for a Student Loan

Before filling out loan applications or accepting student loans, consider future repayment and whether you or your student is going to be responsible for making payments.