The Cost of Attendance (COA) and Average Net Price (which for some reason never gets abbreviated) are actually defined by the government. Basically, the COA is the total cost to attend college for one year, Fall through Spring. This includes tuition, room and board, books and schools supplies, fees, equipment and room materials, and travel and miscellaneous expenses.
The Average Net Price is the average amount full-time freshman were charged after subtracting the average amount of federal, state, or local government and institutional grants or scholarships from the COA. This does not include any loans or student work study.
It’s important for families applying for financial to understand that these terms have specific definitions. Some colleges will include terms such as “net cost” on financial aid award letters or Net Price Calculators. These numbers may include student loans and college work-study that reduces the amount families are required to pay the college “upfront.”
Net Price is what the college is actually charging the student to attend which is why it doesn’t include any self-help aid.
While Net Price is the number families need to use to compare the cost of attending colleges, they still need to understand COA. Even though the number is defined by the federal government, colleges have leeway in what is actually included under categories such as living expenses, meals, and transportation. How colleges calculate these expenses can vary by thousands of dollars as seen in the current effort for athletic scholarships to cover the full COA.
If the COA doesn’t account for unique costs for individual families, they can use this to appeal financial aid awards. For example, many schools have a set amount for transportation. However, this amount is an average that doesn’t come anywhere close to covering the expense of students having to travel long distances.