To determine how much college will cost, you should understand how colleges award financial aid. Most financial aid is need-based, calculated through a formula developed by the federal government. Each student's need is based on an analysis of the student's and family's financial needs and calculated by the Cost of Attendance minus the Student Aid Index.

It's important to note that while financial aid is based on need, it may not fully cover your financial needs.

The cost of attendance (COA) includes all the direct and indirect costs of attending college.

Direct costs are paid directly to the college:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Room and board

Indirect costs are expenses not necessarily paid directly to the college but are part of attending college. While each college provides an estimate, these costs vary depending on your personal requirements. Indirect costs may include:

  • Books
  • Transportation
  • Personal care items
  • Spending money
  • Dependent care expenses
  • Expenses related to a disability

Because tuition and living expenses differ from college to college, the cost of attendance can vary widely among colleges. 

Student Aid Index (SAI) is the amount of money a family can reasonably be expected to contribute toward the student's college costs. It is determined by a federal formula incorporating information you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), including:

  • Your family's income (taxable and untaxable)
  • Assets and benefits (for example, unemployment or Social Security)
  • Family size and the number of family members who will be attending a college

Your SAI stays the same, regardless of the college selected.


College A

College B

College C









Financial Need




Some colleges provide flexibility for special circumstances, such as unusual medical expenses or unemployment. If you have unusual circumstances, be sure to discuss them with the college financial aid administrator and provide any required documentation.

After completing the FAFSA, you—as well as the colleges you indicate on your FAFSA—receive your SAI. Funding from other sources, such as private scholarships, employee tuition assistance, or other financial resources, may affect your financial need.

Because of financial aid, the actual or net price that you pay for college can be much different than the published or "sticker" price. The net price is determined by the Sticker Price minus Gift Aid.

Before making your final college decision, make sure you calculate the net price.  Sometimes, a college with an initial higher price tag may offer significant financial aid through grants and scholarships, ultimately making the cost comparable to—or even less than—colleges with a lower advertised cost.

To help you determine your cost, colleges are required to provide net price calculators on their websites.