How to Break Down the Overall Cost of College

Also called the Cost of Attendance (COA), the overall cost of college includes more than just tuition. It accounts for the money you’ll spend on books, room and board, a meal plan, school supplies, and even transportation and basic personal expenses, if applicable. There’s no way you can project an exact, accurate number for the COA, but realizing that you’re going to be spending — or borrowing — more than just tuition will help you be more responsible with your money early on.

Most two-and four-year colleges post this estimate on their websites, on the financial affairs page or incoming freshmen page. They might show the COA for the entire year or by semester or quarter, and should include an itemized list of what’s included: for instance, you’re room and board, and books and supplies. That amount reflects an estimate of what the average student will spend for each list item, so adjust that price tag up or down if you think your needs are much different.

CollegeAnswer.com posted sample COAs for the 2009-2010 academic year for different types of colleges. Out-of-state students and public four-year colleges could expect to pay an average of $18,548 in tuition and fees, while students at two-year schools averaged a COA of $2,544. Understanding the different averages and COA levels for different schools is a good way to begin your college search if cost is a major issue — you may be able to eliminate certain kinds of colleges altogether, but don’t discount the possibility of scholarships and other financial aid, either.

Once you’ve narrowed down a list of schools, look on their websites or perform a Google search to find COA calculators. The University of Nevada at Las Vegas, for example, features this calculator on their website, asking you to fill in qualifications for academic year, residency, housing choice, student type, and enrollment (full-time or part-time). Louisiana Tech University, though, has a more detailed COA tool that estimates all of your fees, including technology fees, books and supplies, energy surcharge, and more. Use these tools and work with your parents to project the cost of going to school for one year to minimize debt and surprise charges, and to start working on a sensible spending budget once you move onto campus.