What’s the True Cost of Attendance? Know Before You Go

College may seem expensive. In reality, it’s more affordable than you think. The costs depend on what college you go to and how much financial aid you receive.

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It’s important to understand how much college will cost you both for the semester or year you’re planning to attend, and the total cost of the time it will take to earn your degree. Let’s break down the cost of attendance, what it is, what it includes, and how to estimate it at your college.

What does “cost of attendance” mean?

Cost of attendance (sometimes referred to as the “sticker price”) is the maximum amount of money a college costs to attend for one year.

What does the cost of attendance include?

Cost of attendance includes both direct costs and indirect expenses:

  • Direct costs are those paid directly to the college and include tuition and fees, housing, and meal plan.
  • Tuition is the amount you owe to attend college for classes and instruction. Some colleges may charge one set tuition rate while others may charge per credit hour.
  • Fees are additional charges to cover the costs of certain services, for example, technology or lab fees. It’s worth noting these types of fees will vary per college.
  • Housing is a charge from the college to live on campus. Different housing options on campus will cost different amounts depending on the amenities offered. Be sure to look up the different housing options at your college.
  • Meal plans are how you pay colleges to dine on campus. Colleges have different approaches to charging for meal plans, with some offering meal credits and others charging per food item. Check with your college to see what type of meal plans they offer and how they will impact the cost to you.
  • Institutional health insurance may be required depending on the college. If it’s required, it will be automatically billed to you and can cost several thousand dollars. If you have a comparable health insurance plan, you can submit proof of your plan to waive this charge from your bill.
  • Indirect expenses are educational costs not paid directly to the college. They can include textbooks, transportation, dorm furnishings, and other personal expenses.

How do you calculate the cost of attendance?

While colleges provide the cost of attendance, these costs often vary from student to student, so it’s important to understand how much college will cost for you. In addition to the direct costs like tuition and fees, you can often find estimates for indirect expenses on college websites. These amounts can vary widely based on many factors, including your academic year, how far you live from college, and your extracurricular activities. Start by looking at estimates provided by the college and then factor in your anticipated expenses. Although indirect expenses can be challenging to predict, you should do your best to estimate what those costs may be and budget accordingly.

Why is the cost of attendance important?

The cost of attendance is the maximum amount you would pay for one year of college before financial aid is applied. Understanding the cost of attendance can help you put your financial aid into perspective and prepare for out-of-pocket costs.

Will I pay the full cost of attendance?

No. Most students will not pay the full cost of attendance. While the cost of attendance is an important number to understand, make sure to factor in the financial aid you’re receiving. The cost after financial aid has been applied is the amount that you and your family will have to pay out of pocket to attend college. Check out this article for more information about covering the remaining bill.


How much is tuition?

Tuition is the price colleges charge for classes. Students also pay other fees related to enrolling in and attending a college. The cost of tuition and fees varies by college.

There’s a wide range of prices, as the table below shows. Remember, many students receive grants and scholarships that offset college costs.

Type of College

Average Published Yearly Tuition and Fees


Public Two-Year College (in-district students) $3,860
Public Four-Year College (in-state students) $10,940
Public Four-Year College (out-of-state students) $28,240
Private Four-Year College $39,400

These numbers are based on published tuition costs, not what students actually end up paying out of their own pockets. There can be a big difference between those two numbers, thanks to financial aid.

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What other expenses will I have?

In addition to tuition and fees, there are costs for housing, food, books and supplies, and transportation. Learn more about the five main categories of college costs.

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Can I get help paying for college?

Yes. Most college students receive financial aid. This is money that is given or lent to you to help pay for college costs. There are several forms of financial aid:

  • Grants and scholarships: money you do not have to repay
  • Loans: money you do have to repay
  • Work-study: a program that allows you to work part-time to earn money for college expenses

Students often use a combination of financial aid options to pay their college expenses. Read Financial Aid Can Help You Afford College to learn more. 

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What will college really cost me?

Less than you think. The best way to determine what a particular college may really cost is to calculate your estimated net price for that college. The net price is an estimate of the actual cost you and your family need to pay in a year to cover education expenses for you to attend a particular college. It’s the college’s cost of attendance minus any grants and scholarships for which you may be eligible. The net price is usually far lower than the published price.

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Is college worth the cost?

College has many benefits. For example, people who graduate from college earn more money and are more likely to hold a job than people who don’t graduate from college. Learn more about the value of college.

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