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You Need To Know The True Cost Of Attendance!

Category: College Money Strategy
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The True Cost Of Attendance


True cost of attendance? What does that mean? I guarantee you’ll be glad I brought this topic up and even happier after I explain it. If you do not know what the true cost of attendance to each college your student is applying to, then you may be leaving money on the table right from the start, and most parents and students do not even know it.

That’s because there can be a big difference between what the college “publishes” as the cost to attend their school and your student’s actual cost. This is critical! It’s critical because your need is calculated by subtracting your expected family contribution (EFC) from the “cost of attendance”.

Example time:

If cost of attendance = $20,000

Your EFC = $12,000

Your financial need is the difference = $8,000


If the True cost of attendance = $23,000

Your EFC is still = $12,000

Your financial need is now $11,000

So in this case not knowing  your true cost of attendance would have shorted you out of $3,000 in potential scholarship and grant money.

 The College “Number”

You are probably sitting there right now patiently waiting for me to tell you how to determine your true cost! So you should be, because every dollar you can add to the published cost of attendance drops right down to your financial need which directly impacts the amount of free money for college you can get. Let me first show you how the college comes up with the cost of attendance.

Colleges will include these items in their cost of attendance and can use either actual costs or averages. You will find this information on the college’s website:

  • Tuition and Fees
  • Room and Board

A college may or may not include these and if they do it will likely be an average:

  • Books and Supplies
  • Transportation
  • Personal expenses
  • Health Insurance
  • Dependent care for students with dependents
  • Miscellaneous

If a college publishes its cost of attendance and lets say its $20,000 and all they list is tuition and fees, or tuition, fees and room/board then you know they are leaving some pieces of the total cost off the table.

Your “Number”

Your cost to attend a specific college is the true cost of attendance! You have to determine how much it costs to send your student to a particular college being applied to. Once you do that you will know what the true cost is. Now, tuition and fees will likely be similar to what’s published as well as room and board. It’s the other items that need scrutiny. Make sure you include a fair estimate for personal expenses. Personal expenses will include things like clothing, car expenses, laundry, personal care items, entertainment. Calculate health insurance costs if not included. You should also include any items that may be unique to your student’s needs. Be thorough and be able to document these expenses.

Other the things to consider for the true cost include the following:

  • The allowance for a one time cost of obtaining a professional license. Examples include:
    • Fees to take and apply for a licensing exam
    • travel expenses for medical residency interview
  • Costs associated with a study abroad program
  • Expenses related to a student’s disability
  • Costs related to a coop work experience study program
  • Big one here: fees to get a student loan
  • Board only for student living on a military base or housing they receive an allowance for

You must do this for each college you apply to!

Our EBook has a great spreadsheet that has all these items listed. All you have to do is plug your numbers in and the true cost of attendance will be calculated ( coming soon ).

The College’s “Flexibility”

Determining your own true cost of attendance is more important that you may realize. It’s important because of this statement published on the Information for financial aid officers (IFAP) website which is produced by the dept. of education and used by financial aid officers at the colleges.

You (the financial aid officer at the college) have the authority to use professional judgment to adjust the cost of attendance on a case-by-case basis to allow for special circumstances. Such adjustments must be documented in the student’s file.

Here’s another gem from the Dept. of Education…..

The cost of attendance is determined by law (Higher Education Act, Sec. 472) and is not subject to regulation by the Department. The law specifies the types of costs that are included in the cost of attendance, but you (again, the financial aid officer)must determine the appropriate and reasonable amounts to include for each eligible COA category for students at your school, based on the criteria described in this chapter.

So there you have it, straight from the Federal Government’s mouth! If you can show the financial aid officer that the true cost to attend for your student is actually higher then the financial aid officer has an obligation to take a look at your “numbers” and take it into serious consideration.

The bottom line is that you must calculate your cost for each item in the cost of attendance and compare it to what the college is using as their cost of attendance. If you determine that your calculation results in a higher cost a discussion with the financial aid officer is going to be an important part of your strategy. After all, you may just find thousands of dollars in free money doing this alone!


College Financial Aid Tracker (Includes a “TRUE” cost of attendance calculator) – I’ve created the perfect tool for you to not only be able to analyze your financial aid packages but to also calculate your TRUE cost of attendance for each college you are applying too. You can find it rig on my Resources page.


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