Comparing cost of attendance or cost of tuition and fees

During college cost comparision process for my D, what I have found useful is to compare cost of tuition and fees as opposed to total cost of attendance among your top 3 -4 final colleges. This is because 1)cost of room and board can vary between colleges based on college location, college size etc. 2) other expenses can depend on spending habits of an individual, transportation etc. I’m not sure how accurate other expenses estimate is on college website. You do want to keep total cost of attendance number for budgeting purpose. But, when you are down to 2-3 colleges and are having a tough time comparing college A vs college B, just comparing tuition gives a new perspective.

Just comparing tuition is meaningless. The better comparison is tuition + fees + room and board + books. Transportation and spending is variable and the number provided by schools for those variable expenses isn’t particularly accurate for the individual student.

Tuition and fees, maybe. R&B may be what is stated or lower or higher depending on what you choose (if you get a choice) and locale.

It’s hard for me to imagine that book costs would differ substantially between different schools.

You miss my point. If you are comparing costs, you don’t exclude a required cost that is not dependent on things you can control or varies by student spending habits. The OP is recommending excluding required room and board, which makes no sense.

But I would put R&B in the transportation category. That is, it would depend on the individual as well as the school (off-campus options and different dorm/meal plans can vary substantially). So at many colleges, you can control that cost. And books still wouldn’t vary that much across colleges.

But R&B is a required cost. Why would you exclude it? Who really cares about tuition only? Families care about the bottom line. Whatever R&B is at the school, it needs to be factored in to come to a price comparison. I include books precisely because it’s a stable cost across all schools and needs to be paid.

Why include the price of something that will be about the same even if it needs to be paid? Then might as well include clothing costs and any other living costs as well. And why not include travel too? That also needs to be paid.

In any case, in many cases, the difference in net tuition would dominate everything else so I see the reasoning for the OP’s method.

Travel costs isn’t usually accurate in the school’s published COA and needs to be calculated by the family. The OP is talking about the school published COA.

What I’m saying is applicable when you are down to comparing 2-3 colleges and struggling where to put deposit. With R & B, cost can be vastly different between on campus and off campus living which is possible in junior and senior years.

Also, would you compare hotel costs between a two star and four star hotel? I’m not saying that lower R & B cost necessarily means lower quality of R & B. Again, a hotel room in metro would cost more than a hotel room in rural area.

I have to agree with @itsgettingreal21 that looking at R&B at each school is just as important as looking at tuition. It also can give parents and students an idea of the values and social structures on a college campus.

We noticed R&B costs to be much different across schools. Ranging from about $11k a year to over $20k a year…with some schools offering such a huge range within their own school that R&B could be anywhere from $13k - $20k at a particular school depending on what kind of housing you chose and which meal plan.

Before we started our search I would have assumed R&B to be fairly standard across the board, but it is not. And I think there is a lot of information to be gleaned on R&B costs and the potential stratification of socio-economics that you can discover with R&B costs and choices.

At one school we looked at, the difference between the nicest dorms and the smallest, cheapest ones was almost $9k a year. Which told us a lot about how those dorms would be set up (poor students most likely segregated by the fact they wouldn’t have ‘extra’ money to pay for something better than a triple with communal bath).

Other schools we looked at charged the same R&B for every on-campus student unless a student was placed in a single (and the difference between the double and the singles was about $1k per year). Those schools seemed to be making the choice not to segregate students by the amount of money they would have to spend on R&B charges.

Same with Board charges. Lots of poorer students often make the choice to purchase the least expensive meal plan available to save money. Which is one of the reasons those students often go hungry. Again, there are schools that give a wide range of board charges, in the name of choice…but students looking to save money may make choices that aren’t the best long term ones.

Then there are schools which charge the same meal plan price within a range of meal plan choices. Those plans often give students unlimited meal swipes to a ‘main’ dining hall. Those schools are once again (imo) trying to ensure students won’t make short sighted meal plan decisions that may cause them to go hungry.


off campus living is not always less expensive than dorm living- even if it looks like it is.

Leases generally run 12 months, so you are paying for the months your kid is not in school, unless kid gets a job at the college, or is able to sublet (not every landlord will allow a sublet). Not every apartment will come equipped with internet, cable, sometimes utilities are included and sometimes not. Lock on your kids dorm breaks- college pays to fix it. Lock on your kids apartment breaks- good luck getting the landlord to send a locksmith, let alone pay for it. Kiss that security deposit goodbye- we took pictures on move in day, didn’t help. So 13 months rent for 8 1/2 months living in the apartment- yikes.

We had acres of trouble with one kids apartment- broken window on the fire escape (you could see the window lock wasn’t secured from the street so anyone could shimmy up the fire escape and enter the apartment, exterminator, broken refrigerator. By the time the year was up we were ready to beg the university for the “privilege” of living in the dorm (nicer, cheaper, and certainly the housing office was more responsive than a slumlord who was used to renting to kids who showed up, broke stuff, then left, leaving the nice security deposit).

Unless your kid is attending college in a rural area with cheap off campus housing- I wouldn’t ignore R&B…


Room and board costs do vary across colleges. Of course, if one of the options is commuting from home, substitute live-at-home costs (e.g. food and utilities) plus commuting costs.

However, while frosh year in a dorm can have relatively predictable and easily findable costs (just look up on the college’s web site), off-campus housing can vary greatly in cost even near the same college. Some colleges do show an off-campus room and board estimate, but very frugal students may spend substantially less, while less frugal or unlucky-in-the-housing-market students may spend substantially more.

Books and supplies costs probably vary more by major than by college. For example, English literature books may be substantially less expensive than books in many other subjects.

Transportation to and from a residential college obviously varies based on where you are and where the college is, but can be personally estimated (and should, since the college’s estimated average may be very different from your personal transportation cost, as well as how frequently the student comes home for breaks).

Miscellaneous and personal expenses would vary more by the student’s spending habits than anything else, although there may be some college-dependent factor in terms of how costly some of these expenses may be at different colleges.

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Because it is not the same. My daughters went to college at the same time, both were required to live in a dorm and have a meal plan. Daughter 2’s R&B was $5000 more than her sister’s. Each picked what all the other freshmen picked at her school, so no cheaper options. The cheaper daughter’s actually went down once she started school because she joined a sorority and the sorority meal plan was cheaper than the school’s.

It was $5000, so we certainly needed to include that when comparing COA at the schools.

Books can be different at different schools especially if the teachers use a lot of Codes (where you have to pay for the code to take exams online or otherwise do things online) as you can’t buy used. No way to know that though. D1 was a history major so not that many expensive books but several Code courses. D2 was expensive for year 1, but after that she was usually able to get books for free from her friends. Darn Codes though, and some teachers had huge binders of copied material that they had to buy through the bookstore - $100+

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In which case there’s no good way to compare.

R&B may also not be accurate in the COA and may need to be calculated by the family.

Dorm room and board should be easy to find.

Off-campus room and board can be highly variable, and not necessarily easy to predict for a student and family who has no knowledge of the local housing markets.

Food and utilities costs at home for a commuter student should be somewhat possible to calculate, but most families do not break their household budgets into line items for each person, so it may require some work. These costs can be highly variable. Of course, a commuter student may have commuting costs that are greater than a resident student.

Importantly, all of these can vary between one college and another, so they need to be accounted for when comparing college costs.

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The R&B in the COA is going to be the average for that school. Is your child going to pick the average? Then it’s good for your calculations.

One of my kids could have picked a dorm that was $1000 less (shared room, hallway bath) but the majority of freshmen lived in the freshman village (like 94% of freshmen) so she used the higher figure. No choice on the meal plan.

Other daughter couldn’t save much on dorm, but several different meal plans. We used the cheapest when comparing and that’s what she chose. My friend’s daughter went to the same school and picked the most expensive meal plan as her daughter had food insecurity. They used the higher figure to compare. And then both joined the sorority and paid less.

When we were looking at schools, R&B at some schools was $16k. Mine paid $8k and $13.5k

My kids had full and nearly full tuition scholarships. For us, looking at room and board was the majority of the calculation when we were adding up what these schools would cost our family. We looked at the room and board rate sheets to get an idea of what those costs would be for us rather than the average. We took the school calculation for books (and paid much less, most semesters, for all three kids), and for travel and personal expenses we made our own calculations. We also delved deeper into the common data set to see by what percentage each school under consideration raised their tuition (since their scholarships didn’t cover tuition increases) and room and board each year so we had a handle on how our costs would change over four years. We also considered that one kid may need an extra semester and the scholarship and OOS tuition waiver was only for four years.