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Financial Aid Primer: #3. The Real Cost of College


If you were putting together a budget at home, would you simply figure out your mortgage payment or rent, calculate how much it costs you to eat, and then call it a day?  Probably not.  This is because you recognize that living costs a lot more than just paying for the roof over your head and the food that you eat.  When it comes to going to college, the same is true.  College attendance has many different costs, yet, often, we only think about tuition, room and board.
In the previous financial aid post, we defined COA (Cost of Attendance).  This is the dollar figure that college financial aid offices use to help calculate your need by figuring out the approximate cost to attend for a single school year (remember:  COA-EFC=Need).  What do schools consider in this COA calculation?

  • Tuition
  • Room
  • Board
  • School Fees
  • Books
  • School Supplies
  • Travel
  • Personal Expenses

This list includes both direct costs and indirect costs.

  • Direct Costs:  Costs that the institution bills directly to families (e.g., tuition).  These are sometimes called Billable Costs.
  • Indirect Costs:  Costs that the student will have while at college but that will not be paid directly to the institution (e.g., books, travel, personal expenses, etc.)

When you are calculating how expensive college may be for your child, you should include all of these direct and indirect costs, too, and potentially even more.  Before your student applies to a school, it’s important to understand what your actual outlay is likely to be based on your own individual circumstances. Schools use an average number to figure costs like travel and personal expenses, but you should try to be more exact.  For example, if your student will be bringing a car to campus, the school will not put car-related expenses into their financial aid calculation, but you should put it into yours. Will your student be traveling to and from campus multiple times per semester?  Figure the cost per trip and include the number of estimated trips in your cost calculation.  In short, project how your student will be living while attending college and tally up all the costs associated with that lifestyle.
Where do you find information on school costs?  Schools will generally provide tuition information on their websites, and many schools will include an estimated cost of attendance, too. Visit each school’s website that your child is interested in, and if the school provides an estimated COA, use it as a starting point to calculate your costs.
It’s no secret that college costs a lot.   Yet, families still experience sticker shock when the reality of attending college and all of its related expenses hits.  Know what to expect before your child goes.  Set your budget, do your research on college costs, and estimate your child’s expenses based on his or her circumstances.   Having this information will help you to make a more informed decision about which college to attend once the time comes to make that choice.
Andrea Aronson
College Admissions Counselor, Westfield, NJ


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