A crucial part of the education loan process is determining how much money you are going to borrow. Some students begin to run wild with the idea of receiving a loan check, but it is important to be conscious that a loan is not free money – you will have to pay it back. This being said, the less you borrow the better. There are many ways to minimize the amount that you will need to take out as a loan, but the first thing you should find out is your university´s cost of attendance (COA).

What is cost of attendance?
The term refers to the amount that it is going to cost you, per year, in order to attend a particular university as a full-time student. A university´s COA can normally be found on its website and in its annual catalogue. This amount is also used as a reference to determine financial aid eligibility for those who submit the FAFSA (for US citizens/permanent residents). Below is an example of how a university may present its cost of attendance.

2014-2015 Undergraduate Estimate of Costs
The following are the estimated two-semester costs for a full-time undergraduate (taking 12-18 units each semester) living in university housing:

$48,347 Tuition and fees
13,334 Room and board*
1,500 Books and supplies
1,000 Personal and miscellaneous
580___ Transportation
$64,761 Total (add $350 New Student Fee for your first semester)

*Includes average rent and the standard meal plan for students living in on-campus freshman housing.

COA Breakdown
As is stated in the title, a university´s COA is an estimated total. In reference to the example given above, the actual cost for each individual student could be lower or higher than $64,761 per year. Here is a breakdown of the 5 categories, to give you a better idea of how schools determine their annual cost of attendance and to assist you in calculating a better estimate of the amount that you’ll have to pay.

1. Tuition and fees
As tuition, this category provides the total cost of units for a full-time student. Referring back to the example, the minimum amount of units to be a full-time student would be 12. As an international student, be sure to look on the school´s webpage carefully, because some universities may have different tuition costs for foreign and out of state applicants.

In terms of schools fees, they differ from university to university. The following are items that are commonly included in this total:

  • Student health insurance
  • Student service fees
  • Student programming fee
  • Student aid fund
  • Commitment deposit (for new students)
  • Lab fees (dependent on major)

If you are interested in finding out the exact amount for each fee, most universities usually include detailed costs in their school catalogue.

2. Room and Board
Room and board is one of the costs that can vary greatly between students. There are some institutions which require all freshmen to live in on-campus housing; however, prices for on-campus housing also differ depending on dorm amenities. It is important to keep in mind that some universities also require incoming freshmen to purchase an on-campus meal plan, which may be included within the cost of room and board. The prices for the different student meal plans can usually be found on the school´s website, as well.

If you are considering living off-campus be sure to take the time to research apartments in the area and the city´s cost of living beforehand. This will give you a better idea of how much your rent, utilities, and grocery shopping could add up to.

3. Books and supplies
The cost of books and supplies can also differ greatly between students of different majors. When it comes to buying books, there are many options out there. You can rent textbooks, buy used books, purchase on-line versions, or even check them out from the university library.

Expenses for school supplies also varies from major to major. For example, a psychology major may not have to purchase any major specific supplies; however, an architect major will most likely need to purchase special tools to be used during studio time.

4. Personal and miscellaneous
This category is one that is completely based on the budget and lifestyle of each individual student. Personal expenses could include the following: a cell phone, grocery shopping, going to the movies, eating-out, museums, etc. This is the category where you will have the most control on determining how much you actually spend.

5. Transportation
Transportation is another estimate that greatly depends on your personal situation and the city you find yourself in. If you have access to a vehicle, then you might have to take into consideration on-campus parking fees. If you end up in a pedestrian-friendly city than it might be worth looking into purchasing a monthly bus or metro pass, which you can often get at a student discount.

For more tips on how to begin creating a personal budget click here

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