How to Calculate the Cost of Attendance at University?

If you’re thinking about attending college, one of the first things you should do is calculate the cost of attendance (COA). The COA is the total amount it will cost to attend a university for one academic year. It’s calculated by adding tuition and fees, room and board, and other expenses such as books and supplies. A school’s cost of attendance is used to determine each student’s eligibility for financial aid such as grants and loans. The U.S. Department of Education determines COAs for colleges across the country.

How to Calculate the Cost of Attendance at University?

The figure is based on the average cost to attend that school during the academic year. However, your actual COA may be more or less than the average depending on your personal expenses. For example, if you’re living off-campus in an apartment instead of a dormitory, your room and board costs might be higher or lower than what’s reflected in the COA calculation. This article aims to provide information on how to calculate the full cost of attendance at any university in the United States.

What is the Cost of Attendance in Universities?

The cost of attendance (COA) at a university is the total estimated expenses for one year including tuition, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, and miscellaneous expenses. The COA at any school is an estimate that tries to include all costs a student may encounter while attending college. The COA can vary dramatically from one university to another. For example, a recent report by the College Board found that the average COA for in-state students at a public four-year institution was $22,000 in 2015-16.

By comparison, the average out-of-state cost of attendance was $35,000. The COA can be higher or lower at individual schools and also depends on whether you are a full-time or part-time student. Some schools will provide separate estimates for tuition and fees and room and board expenses. The cost of attendance is calculated by the school after your FAFSA application has been received. If you are attending a public institution in your home state, your cost of attendance will likely be lower than if you attend school out-of-state or at a private college or university. The cost of living will also play a role in how much your annual cost of attendance can be.

You may receive an offer from your school to help pay for the cost of attendance through financial aid. The Financial Aid Office at your school will review your budget if you have unusual expenses that are not included in the regular student budget. For example, if you are a single parent or have dependent children or other dependents you can request additional funds for child care or other costs not already included in the regular student budget. The Financial Aid Office will make adjustments to your student budget to account for these special circumstances.

General Perspective 

The cost of attending college has become a hot-button topic in recent years. For many families, it’s one of the most significant financial considerations they’ll ever make. Before you can compare colleges and finalize a list of schools that might be options for you or your child, it’s important to understand what the total cost will be. The first step is recognizing that the “sticker price” for college isn’t set in stone. Colleges and universities are very aware that the total cost of attendance can make all the difference for families struggling with tuition, room, board, books, and other expenses.

Colleges have budgets set aside to help students who need financial aid — and depending on your situation, that could include you. It’s also important to note that some colleges are more generous with financial aid than others. “We think of financial aid as basically a discount,” says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research at “It reduces the cost of attendance.”

How Are the Cost of Attendance Estimates Calculated?

The cost of attendance is a standard figure used to represent what it costs to live in the area around a college or university for one year. Schools use this number for awarding federal and institutional financial aid, as well as when determining how much student debt is reasonable. Cost of attendance estimates considers many different factors when estimating expenses for full or part-time students attending any given institution. These factors include:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board (or off-campus housing)
  • Books and other supplies
  • Transportation
  • Personal expenses (which may include clothing, entertainment costs, and computer equipment)
  • Miscellaneous items.
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We will look in-depth at these as we go on. The cost of attendance was created to ensure that students receive enough financial aid to cover not just their tuition, but all the costs associated with attending college. According to the Department of Education’s website, “The COA includes not only tuition and fees but also estimates for your books, supplies, transportation and other personal expenses.”

List of Cost of Attending College

Now that you know how much you’re eligible to receive, it’s time to figure out your cost of attendance. A college’s cost of attendance includes both direct expenses and indirect expenses. Direct expenses are the costs for tuition, fees, room and board, books, and supplies that are billed by the college. Indirect expenses are other costs such as travel, personal expenses, and costs related to a disability.

1. Direct Cost

Direct costs are immediate expenses that you’ll pay directly to the school. They can include tuition and fees, room and board, and any course-related charges (e.g., lab fees). If a fee isn’t listed on your bill, ask what it’s for!

  • Tuition

The cost of tuition is likely the first number that comes to mind when you think about the cost of college. It’s also likely the most expensive expense associated with attending university. Tuition costs vary from one school to another, but the average annual cost for in-state students at public schools is approximately $9,139, while private schools average more than $31,000 per year intuition.

  • Room and board

Taking into account room and board also gives you an accurate picture of the total cost of attending a particular school. Room and board include living expenses such as rent or dorm fees as well as meal plans if they’re offered by the school. The average price for room and board among all institutions — public and private — is $10,138 per year.

  • Fees

Colleges charge fees for everything from applying to graduation to using the gym and library or taking a class with a lab component. You can find information on fees at your college’s website or simply ask an administrator if you have any questions about fees not listed on their site.

  • Books and supplies

These include any textbooks or course materials you’ll need to purchase for class, as well as other basic supplies such as pencils, pens, notebooks, and more. This estimate doesn’t include computers or other electronics. The average annual cost of books and supplies is $1,200.

2. Indirect Cost

Indirect costs are estimated expenses that you’ll pay elsewhere but could be affected by attending school there. They can include off-campus rent and utilities; food (if you don’t live in a dorm); transportation; textbooks and supplies; laptop or computer; cell phone; laundry; toiletries; personal items (clothing, entertainment); health insurance (if not covered by parents); and miscellaneous expenses (e.g., haircuts).

How can I increase my Cost of Attendance?

The COA is set by the school each academic year and is based on a particular number of credit hours per semester. If the student enrolls in more or fewer credits than this number, the cost of attendance will be affected. Students who attend school year-round can get an additional allowance for summer classes. Other adjustments may be available for dependent care expenses, disabilities, or other special circumstances.

Costs can vary significantly from one school to another — public versus private schools, in-state versus out-of-state tuition rates at public colleges, two-year versus four-year schools, and so on. However, within a given school there will generally be far less variation in costs from one student to another. For instance, there may be some variability in the room and board costs between students living off-campus or in different housing styles on campus. Here are extra allowable costs when requesting an increase to your COA:

  1. Additional tuition or course fees (will be verified in the system)
  2. Additional books and supplies (submit copies of paid receipts)
  3. Car repairs (submit copies of paid receipts)
  4. Computer purchase (submit copies of paid receipts)
  5. Expenses related to international or national student exchange (submit cost sheet from Global Education 
  6. Office GEO) office along with any applicable receipts)
  7. Travel expenses (only applicable for students residing more than 10 miles away from campus, the address will be verified with UNM)

However, paid receipts MUST be in the student’s name and the expense must occur during a current period of enrollment. If the receipt has no name, you will be required to provide documentation that supports expenses (e.g. bank or credit card statement). Medical/dental expenses require that you submit PAID medical receipts. Increases will only be approved if documentation supports that your expenses are higher than the standard cost of attendance.

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Cost of Attendance Example

Estimating your cost of attendance can be a big help as you plan for how to pay for college. We’ve broken down the major costs involved with attending school so you can start calculating your total expenses. Keep in mind that every student’s situation is unique. Your actual costs may differ from the totals we’ve provided here. Here is a sample letter;


I am writing to request the cost of attendance for a full-time freshman for the upcoming semester. I am hoping to get this information as soon as possible so that my family and I can begin planning ahead for next year.

Thank you for your time!”

Sample COA spreadsheet*

1st Year 2nd Year 3rd Year 4th Year
Tuition and Fees $10,000 $10,000 $10,000 $10,000
Room and Board $8,000 $8,000 $8,000 $8,000
Books and Supplies $800 $800 $800 $800
Transportation $2,500 $2,500 $2,500 $2,500
Personal $1,500 $1,500 $1,500 $1,500
Total $22,800 $22,800 $22,800 $22,800


However, your actual expenses may differ from the COA, depending on your individual circumstances. You may pay more or less than the COA, depending on where you live, what you study, and how much you receive in scholarships and grants. To determine your expected family contribution (EFC), we subtract your estimated financial aid from the COA. This allows us to see how much you and your family will be expected to contribute toward your education for the upcoming year.

How to Calculate Cost of Attendance

In order to calculate the cost of attendance of a university or college, you need to know two things: The total cost for one year of tuition and the total amount of credits required for graduation. Find out what the cost per credit hour is at your university or college. This information can be found online in the school’s catalog or through an admissions counselor. Not all schools have a flat fee per credit hour, so it’s important to know what the rate is.

Multiply the number of credits needed to graduate by the cost per credit hour to determine how much it will cost intuition alone to graduate from that school in one year. Find out whether you will attend school as a full-time student or part-time student. If you are a full-time student, multiply this figure by four years, which is how long it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree program at most universities and colleges.

If you are a part-time student, multiply this figure by six years, which is how long it takes to complete a bachelor’s degree program attending school part-time at most universities and colleges.

Is the Cost of Attendance Per year or Semester

Colleges and universities set the cost of attendance for each academic year, which may be calculated based on a student’s program, housing plans, and other factors. The cost of attendance is the total amount of money that it will cost a student to attend college for the entire school year. This includes both direct costs (fees that a student pays directly to the school) and indirect costs (expenses that a student must pay in order to attend a college that is not billed directly by the school) as we have discussed earlier.

For example, if your college costs $10,000 in tuition each year, and you estimate that you’ll spend another $10,000 on room and board, books, etc., then your cost of attendance is $20,000. It’s important to remember that this isn’t the same thing as how much you’ll pay out of pocket. College financial aid packages are designed to help students cover their cost of attendance, which means that they can help you afford college even if your costs are higher than what your family can afford to pay outright.

That said, it’s important to be realistic about your expenses when calculating your cost of attendance. If you don’t keep track of how much money you spend in a typical month now, it can help to create a budget (or use an online budget calculator) so that you can figure out how much money is left over after paying for necessities like rent or food and transportation. Please look at the spreadsheet above.

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Thank you for reading this far! We hope my sharing of some of my personal thoughts and experiences about college may be of use to you. In today’s world, students need to learn as much as they can before making a decision whether to go to college or not, and that means being aware of the potential costs. If it helps you with your decision, then I’m glad I wrote this blog post. We would like to hear from you. Check out some of the frequently asked questions below!

Frequently Asked Questions 

What Is the Cost of Attendance?

The Cost of Attendance (COA) is the total amount it will cost you to go to school—usually one year—and can typically include:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board (if you plan to live on campus)
  • Books and supplies
  • Personal expenses (laundry, entertainment, etc.)
  • Transportation costs (bus pass, gas money, etc.)
  • Loan fees

Why Do Colleges Have a COA?

Your college’s COA is set by the U.S. Department of Education and helps determine how much financial aid you’re eligible to receive. The difference between your COA and your expected family contribution is called your financial need, which is the amount of aid you are eligible to receive from your state or federal government, as well as other sources like scholarships.

Knowing your COA can also help you budget your money so you don’t end up with a huge debt after graduation. This number also includes things such as books and supplies along with transportation costs, so it’s important to remember that it isn’t just tuition and room and board that need to be paid for when attending college. 

How do I know what my cost of attendance will be?

The university’s cost of attendance (COA) is an estimate of what it costs the typical student to attend school for one year. The COA includes tuition and fees; on-campus room and board (or a housing and food allowance for off-campus students); and allowances for books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, and dependent care expenses. It also includes an allowance for personal expenses. The COA does not include costs associated with study abroad programs or other special academic programs.

What does the cost of attendance (COA) include?

The cost of attendance (COA) is the total estimated expenses for one year at a college including tuition, room and board, books, fees, and other educationally related costs. The COA is used to determine your eligibility for financial aid. It may also be called the “budget” or “cost of education.”

What kinds of expenses are included in the COA?

The COA includes tuition and fees; room and board; books and supplies; transportation; and personal expenses (such as laundry, clothing, entertainment). The COA doesn’t include meal plans or credit card fees, however. It’s important to note that the COA is not your total college bill; it’s just a standard tool used to determine your financial need.

How do schools come up with the numbers in their COAs?

College affordability specialists work together with administrators at each school to determine what costs should go into a student’s budget. Typically, this involves reviewing surveys conducted with students about their spending habits during the previous year, as well as surveying local landlords about rent prices in the area around campus. Schools then include these projected expenses in their COAs.

Why is the cost of attendance different than my bill?

The cost of attendance is an estimate of what it costs the typical student to attend college. It includes tuition and fees, room and board (or a housing and food allowance), books and supplies, transportation, and personal expenses. Your bill may differ from the cost of attendance if you are receiving financial aid or have charges that are unique to your situation.

How do colleges calculate COA?

Colleges use their own unique formulas to determine the cost of attendance. Many start with the cost of tuition, also known as “sticker price,” but this amount can be significantly lowered by scholarships and grants that don’t have to be paid back (“free money”). After subtracting any free money from the sticker price, colleges then estimate other expenses that might not be covered by financial aid or out-of-pocket payments. Some schools will add a “living allowance” to the COA that covers the costs of housing, food, and transportation. Other schools will require students to provide documentation of expenses in order to receive additional funds.

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Martin Uwakwe

As an SEO Strategist, Web Analytics Expert, and Content Developer with over 7 years of experience, I'm passionate about leveraging data-driven insights to optimize online visibility, drive organic traffic, and boost search rankings. My track record includes successfully optimizing and analyzing hundreds of e-commerce websites, managing multi-million-dollar marketing budgets for maximum ROI, and crafting engaging content that resonates with audiences. With proficiency in SEO, data analysis, web optimization tools, and content creation, I'm dedicated to helping businesses thrive in the digital landscape.