University of Virginia

The cost of living at college

Every college publishes a formal Cost of Attendance (COA) figure each year. This is also known as the sticker price. It has one purpose and that is for determining a cap on financial aid, including federal student and parent loans.

But here’s the crazy part: the Cost of Attendance may be way off when it comes to your family’s costs.

Here’s why. Only a portion of the COA goes directly to the college – the tuition and fees portion. For students living on campus and taking part in a standard meal plan, the amount included for room and board will probably be fairly close to accurate. (Be careful though – many colleges have dozens of housing and meal options and the COA may only include an “average” or typical plan.)

The other items in the COA are personal expenses (spending money), books and supplies, and transportation. These are merely estimates made by the college, they do not have to be correct. In fact, the higher the estimates, the higher the sticker price and the less affordable the college looks. There is pressure to keep these ‘other’ expense estimates low.

By far, the biggest non-tuition item is room and board. What happens to your COA if you move off-campus as many students do? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

At UVa, the 2014-15 COA is the same for room and board whether you are on or off campus. The clear implication is that you can rent an apartment for the same out of pocket cost as living on campus.  If you are heading to UVa and plan to live off campus, is that a reasonable assumption? Remember, you’ll most likely be leasing an apartment for 12 months, not the 9 that you are on campus.

In Northern Virginia, there are a number of colleges. You would think that the cost of living off campus would not vary significantly in the general area. An analysis of 8 colleges in a recent edition of Money magazine showed that living expense estimates ranged from $12,800 to $20,300. The authors estimated that your actual expenses to live off campus would be $20,400.

You might think that it’s just a bad estimate and that’s no big deal, but it is a big deal if you are relying on the college to give you a fair picture of your out-of-pocket expenses. What’s more, if you are relying on financial aid, even if you max out your aid you will not have enough money to live off-campus if the COA is significantly low.

The takeaway? Do your own homework on your out of pocket expenses!  We have a number of suggestions for parents on how to do that. For freshmen, the key is to focus on books and on personal expenses. Contact us if you’d advice for your family’s situation.