When making college decisions, knowing the cost of attendance (COA) for the school you want to attend is important. The COA estimates how much it would cost a student to attend a school for one academic year without any financial aid or scholarships. It includes tuition, fees, housing and dining and other school-related fees. Knowing a school’s COA is important in comparing schools and determining how much financial aid you may need and be eligible for.

What’s included in the cost of attendance?

Schools must disclose their cost of attendance and how that cost breaks down. Most colleges and universities post this information on their websites, but it will also be included in your financial aid award letter.

While each school’s COA will differ, it will typically be made up of the following expenses:

  • Tuition and fees.
  • Room and board (on-campus housing and meals).
  • Books and supplies.
  • Transportation.
  • Miscellaneous personal expenses.
  • Loan fees (if applicable).
  • Dependent care and child care expenses (if applicable).
  • Eligible study abroad costs (if applicable).
  • Disability expenses (if applicable).

This COA could look slightly different for students with unique enrollment statuses, such as part-time students, commuters or incarcerated students. In these cases, the COA may include only tuition, fees, books and supplies.

Private vs. public school cost of attendance

Private schools almost always have a higher cost of attendance than public schools. Private schools generally have higher fees and charge more for room and board, but the tuition makes the biggest difference in COA.

For example, the private school Duke University estimates an annual COA of more than $80,000, while the public school University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill estimates a COA of roughly $25,000 per academic year for in-state students. At Duke, tuition makes up around $60,000 of the total COA. At UNC, tuition is just $7,000.

How cost of attendance impacts financial aid

A school’s cost of attendance is one factor that determines how much financial aid you’re eligible for. The COA is used with your expected family contribution (EFC) – an estimate of your family’s financial strength based on information inputted on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Colleges subtract your EFC from the school’s COA to determine your financial need. This means that at schools with higher COAs, you may have more financial need and may be eligible for more need-based aid.

The COA also helps determine how much non-need-based aid you can receive. To calculate non-need-based aid, colleges will take their COA and subtract all financial aid you’ve already received — including need-based aid and private scholarships. If you’re attending a school with a high COA and haven’t qualified for much need-based aid, you may be offered more federal loans and grants opportunities.

Can I borrow more than my cost of attendance?

As a general rule, you cannot take out loans or accept scholarships beyond your cost of attendance. Both federal and private loans will be certified by your school, and you will not be approved for any amount above the cost of attendance, minus any financial aid you’ve already received. You must also report private scholarships to your school, and any amount over your cost of attendance may cut into your school’s financial aid package.

If you find yourself in this situation, or if your expenses are significantly over the stated cost of attendance, speak to your financial aid office. In some cases, you may be able to appeal your cost of attendance and raise the limit, paving the way for additional loans or scholarships. You may also be able to use private scholarships to replace the money you intend to borrow through student loans.