Controlling what colleges call the "cost of attendance"

The Cost of Attendance Hurdle

by Susan M. Sparks

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As parents and students navigate the new expenses of college, one category can take both by surprise. Everything from peanut butter and ramen noodles to bus tickets home can all be lumped into one catchall category otherwise known as Cost of Attendance. (COA).

While many financial aid worksheets touch on COA, it's a category that can lead to serious financial strain if you don't plan for it. Just as we plan for the unexpected with an emergency fund, it's critical that college students have funds set aside for their surprises.

One area that adds up quickly is outside the dining hall. Most students assume the proceeds from their summer job will cover pizza night and football tickets. However, as they settle into their new routine, they may decide that a loaf of bread, a coffee maker, and a jar of peanut butter in their dorm room is more convenient than getting up, getting dressed, and heading to the dining hall before it closes each morning. Most schools have figured that out and have mini marts with overpriced bread, peanut butter, and coffee available at the swipe of a student ID.

If your student can catch a ride to a grocery store or other retail outlet away from campus, they can save on these expenses. Some institutions will allow adjustments to meal plans within the first few days of each semester, so encourage your student to let you know if you should drop the morning meal or adjust the total number of meals for the week in the cafeteria.

Another cost is unexpected transportation. It's difficult for a parent to say no when their homesick student wants to escape dorm life and spend a weekend at home catching up on ten loads of laundry and sleeping in their own bed. Last minute bus or train tickets are pricey, or if you pick them up and return them, you have two round trips worth of gas to consider. Encourage your student to take advantage of rides home shared with others in the area, but there may be times that your student can't arrange to carpool or the bus is sold out.

Attending school far from home can be exciting, but it also can bring other unexpected expenses, especially if there is a major change in climate. A student that grew up in a temperate environment will suddenly have to adapt if they are attending a campus with extreme weather. Walking across the commons in snow and bone chilling temperatures can be a wakeup call for your wallet, as they need to purchase boots, long underwear, coat, hat, gloves and scarves. It all adds up.

A difficult roommate can also be an unexpected expense. If conditions are frustrating enough, most schools allow students to switch roommates at semester break. If your student planned to split the expense of items such as a dorm fridge, microwave or futon and then needs to move out, they may be in need of an item the previous roommate supplied or reimburse the roommate for items they will take with them.

Despite planning, summer jobs and financial aid, there will be some unexpected college expenses. The best way to be prepared is to encourage your student to communicate regularly, rather than waiting for that panicked phone call home, "Mom, I need some money."

Susan M. Sparks has been a writer and photographer for newspapers, the web and as a contractor for the U.S. Navy. As a military wife and mom, she has organized the family's moves across the world, over 20 moves in 30 years. She created The Student Life Jacket to empower young adults to start successful organizational habits.

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