College Cost of Attendance

The Cost of Attendance (COA) is another key factor in determining financial aid eligibility. The Cost of Attendance (COA) is essentially a student budget that will provide an accurate projection of reasonable costs associated with a student’s education for a specific enrollment period. Families should take careful note of the established COA when planning for college. The COA may vary greatly among colleges due to varying direct and indirect cost differences.

The Cost of Attendance (COA) is defined by the college and includes specific billable expenses, such as tuition (based on academic program), fees (health insurance fees, athletic fees, and activity fees, etc.), and room and board. In addition, the COA will also include standard allowances, as determined by the college, for non-billable education-related expenses, such as books and supplies, personal expenses, and transportation costs incurred during a specific academic enrollment period.

Colleges do their best to establish a Cost of Attendance (COA) that is realistic and one that most students can live within. In many cases, colleges facilitate expense surveys and collect student expenditure data in order to determine a fair and reasonable COA for their students. The COA should be viewed as a solid resource when budgeting for college, however students should also think carefully about any personal obligations and additional expenses that they may have. For many students, the established COA will be a sufficient budgeting tool; however, some students may find that is not realistic due to additional personal expenses specific to their situation. For example, if a student has significant medical expenses not covered by insurance, has disability-related expenses, special dietary needs, or significant travel expenses, then the student would need to plan accordingly for these additional personal expenses.

In some cases a family will need to plan themselves for these additional expenses; however, in some cases the COA can be increased which may allow for additional loan borrowing or work eligibility.

What to do when the Cost of Attendance (COA) is not realistic?

Students should contact the Financial Aid Office and inquire whether an adjustment to the Cost of Attendance (COA) would be allowed. The Financial Aid Office does have a certain degree of discretion in making adjustments to the COA, providing that the expenses are reasonable and sufficiently documented. If you feel you have valid expenses, you should contact the Financial Aid Office at the college to discuss your options. Please note that if the COA is increased, typically it just allows for additional loan borrowing, either through the PLUS Loan Program or through a private education loan program; however, you should check with the individual college for eligibility specifics.

Financial aid administrators do have some leeway, due to Professional Judgment, in making adjustments to the Cost of Education (COA), providing that the student has a legitimate request and can provide adequate documentation.

The college determines the student’s Cost of Attendance (COA) budget based on their academic program and anticipated enrollment status. For example, if a student is planning on attending college on a full-time basis, the college will formulate a student budget based on full-time tuition rates. When a student changes their enrollment status, typically their student budget will be impacted. Thus it is very important to have a conversation with a financial aid administrator if the student plans on changing their enrollment status, as this could trigger a change in the Cost of Attendance (COA) and consequently financial aid eligibility.The Cost of Attendance (COA) is meant to be a reasonable budget, thus if a student chooses to live a more lavish lifestyle, they should plan for expenses beyond what is included in the standard COA themselves. Student budgets are intended to provide students with an accurate forecast of reasonable costs associated with their education during a specific time period, thus financial aid officers cannot increase budgets for life style choices, but can only consider budget increases for necessary and reasonable expenses. The purchase of a laptop for college is an example of a reasonable expense.

More on Cost of Attendance (COA)

Although the Cost of Attendance (COA) is a reasonable standard budget provided by the college, a family will need to determine if the COA is feasible for the student’s specific situation. What is meant by feasible? There are certain components in the COA that are fixed, such as tuition, fees and room and board costs. However, some of the budget components, such as books, personal and transportation expenses are  estimates thus the COA amount may be realistic for one student. but may not be for another. For example, if a Massachusetts resident attends a school in New England, the travel allowance included in the COA should be sufficient. However, if a Massachusetts resident attends college in California and plans to travel home for holidays and for summer break, higher travel expenses need to be planned for accordingly. In addition, students typically need a laptop and other related equipment for college. If the COA doesn’t include a line item for a laptop, then the student would need to plan for this additional expense.  Families will need to use the COA as well as a review of their student’s specific needs when planning for college.

Another consideration when constructing your student budget is to plan for clothing allowances when attending college in a different climate then you currently reside. For example, if a student is relocating to New England from southern California, the student surely will need to purchase a winter coat, boots, accessories and clothing suitable for a cold weather region, thus would need to budget for those items accordingly.

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Jan Marie Combs, EzineArticles Basic Author