When students and their families apply for financial aid and make plans to pay for college, college costs should be represented as their total cost of attendance.

What does total cost of attendance include?

  • The charges that you see on a term bill: tuition and fees, room and board. 
  • Costs that do not appear on a term bill: books, lab supplies, computers, transportation to and from home and some allowance for clothes and entertainment.

Financial aid offices use their own estimate for total cost of attendance to determine how much financial aid you might receive.

However, it might not be your total cost of attendance. 

While most colleges acknowledge that students need books and transportation, they do not consider that it could cost more to pursue some degrees over others. And while most college students arrive on campus for their freshman year with their own laptop and software, I have not seen a college consider those costs in their calculation of the total cost of attendance, unless the college included them within its direct charges. I have visited only two, Chatham University (PA) and Moravian College (PA), that did. 

Here’s three examples of for total cost of attendance from within my home state.

The College of New Jersey, a very good mid-sized public school with approximately 6,400 undergraduates, estimates its total cost of attendance to be just over $35,000 for residents and just under $47,000 for non-residents. 

The difference is entirely in the tuition. Every other estimated cost is the same—even transportation. The college estimates just over $1,000 for every student, whether they come from New Jersey or a continent outside of North America. 

That’s not going to matter for most of the students—94 percent come from New Jersey.Bbut it will matter if the school wants to add more students who would expect to fly home two to four times a year.

Rutgers-New Brunswick, New Jersey’s flagship state university, charges residents and non residents a little less for tuition and fees than The College of New Jersey. Rutgers allows more money for books, but when it comes to transportation costs, Rutgers allows for less for New Jersey residents ($850 vs. $1,400) Rutgers is more accustomed to having non-resident students (15 percent, including those from outside the US), which might explain the difference.

The New Jersey resident appears to fare the same, presuming a choice between of both schools. But a Californian or an international student who wanted to attend either school—both are within a train ride to New York City or Philadelphia—would get a fairer estimate of college costs from Rutgers.

Drew University, also located in New Jersey, is fairly expensive for a private liberal arts college. Drew allows less for other miscellaneous expenses than either of the state schools profiled in this post. The university includes transportation costs in their estimate of total cost of attendance only when they apply to commuters. This is surprising to me because approximately half of Drew’s students do not come from New Jersey.

College admissions and financial aid officers will encourage students and families to use the Net Price Calculators on their Web sites to get a preliminary idea of what their college costs might be. These may or may not be helpful or encouraging. 

Most important, keep in mind that the financial aid officers estimate college costs differently at each school. Don’t be afraid to ask questions on how they do it. The more thorough and transparent the people are, the more comfortable you will be with the college.

For more assistance to help you consider costs as you build your college list, contact me at stuart@educatedquest.com or call me at 609-406-0062.

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