Among the apples-to-grapefruit aspects of planning for college costs is the substantial differences in what’s included in Cost of Attendance at different schools. All schools will quote costs for tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and personal expenses. But often, those are just a starting point.

A school’s published cost of attendance matters for two reasons:

  • Scholarships and grants are based on that figure. A school can’t award more than the Cost of Attendance, nor can a student receive non-taxable scholarships in excess of tuition, fees, books and supplies.
  • Student loan borrowing is capped at Cost of Attendance.

We found meaningful differences between quoted and actual costs in the following areas:

Room and Board: Many schools, especially the larger ones, have multiple price points for housing and meal plans. Typically– but not always– COA uses higher priced options, and sometimes it can be hard to find the range of options and costs before you’re accepted. In my son’s case, one of his schools quoted a mid-range housing and meal cost; the other used higher cost options. The end result was that one school appeared to cost about $7,000 more per year when in fact the difference was less than $2,000. At my daughter’s school, all first year students pay the same housing cost but in subsequent years, cost is based on the actual room the student has– single, double, suite, etc. And each dorm– which is assigned the first year with students remaining in that dorm as long as they’re in on-campus housing– tends to have a limited selection of room types. We were fortunate to know an older student who mentioned that his housing costs were going to go up after freshman year because his dorm only had single rooms, so my daughter chose a dorm with doubles.

Books: When I asked one former admissions professional how schools come up with estimates for books, she told me, “We make that up.” Partly I was asking because my son’s school estimated $800 per year for books whereas my daughter’s estimated $1,800. Costs for books are all over the map and tend to differ more by course of study than by school. Textbooks are the most expensive, with access codes for workbooks costing about the same as a high-end bike. Students studying sciences or math, or taking lower-level foreign language classes, will most likely be buying more expensive books. To get a realistic estimate, contact the department for your student’s intended major or look up online syllabi for classes they’re likely to take.

Health insurance: This was a big one for us. All schools require students to have health insurance, but it may or may not be included in COA. A few things on health insurance: If you’re covered by one of the major national health insurance providers like Blue Cross, Cigna, etc., your student will most likely be covered even if they go out of state. Medicaid coverage for students varies by school and state. Your school will offer health insurance and in some cases (based on comments from my daughter’s school’s parents message board) this can be cheaper than keeping the student on your own plan.

Both of my kids were required to provide proof of insurance or get the campus health insurance plan. But we got an unexpected bonus: Because my daughter’s school includes health insurance in COA, her tuition was reduced by the amount of the school plan’s cost when we provided proof of coverage, lowering her annual cost by over $4,000.

All by way of saying, look at all the fine print and ask about all costs because you might actually get some pleasant surprises.