Counselors play a role in helping students understand the full cost of attendance at the colleges they are exploring. Aid is awarded on the basis of the difference between expected family contribution and total college costs (not just tuition).

The cost of attendance generally includes the following:

 ■ Tuition and fees

 ■ Room and board

 ■ Books and supplies

 ■ Transportation

 ■ Personal expenses

Increasingly, there is some flexibility in what are sometimes called fixed costs, like tuition and fees and room and board. For example, colleges have many dormitory room options and many meal plans. At private institutions, tuition is usually the same for all students, but at public institutions it can depend on a student’s course load or state of residence. (Many states have consortia that charge students from neighboring states the same amount as in-state students.) Students should consult reputable guidebooks (such as Getting Financial Aid by the College Board) and the colleges’ Web sites to determine the cost of tuition and room and board.

The invaluable Counselors and Mentors Handbook on Federal Student Aid, published by the U.S. Department of Education, explains how a college determines cost: “The financial aid administrator at a school usually develops an average cost of attendance for different categories of students. Some programs of study might have lab fees or higher charges for books and supplies than other programs. Students living off campus might have slightly higher allowable costs for room and board and transportation expenses than students living on campus.… The law specifies that the cost of attendance includes tuition and fees and an allowance for living expenses such as room and board, books and supplies, miscellaneous personal expenses (including a reasonable allowance for renting or purchasing a personal computer), and transportation costs.”

Unfixed costs can be high. Colleges themselves estimate that books and supplies range from $800 to $900 or more a year, and students in fields requiring special equipment (such as architecture and engineering) will spend more. Transportation costs can only be approximate.

Finally, personal expenses. Colleges estimate that students spend between $1,000 and $2,000 a year on personal expenses. The amount may shock some families, but you can help them put the figure into context: Do their children eat snacks, go to the movies, get their hair cut, and buy CDs and clothes now? They will continue to do so in college!


Any student applying for federal aid must complete the FAFSA. And, in general, most students applying for aid will want to complete the FAFSA. The federal government mails an excellent booklet—the Counselors and Mentors Handbook on Federal Student Aid—to each school each year. This easy-to-use reference provides information to help counselors advise students about financial aid, with an emphasis on federal student aid programs. If you need a copy, call 1 800 4-FED-AID (1 800 433-3243) or download it from The Office of Federal Student Aid has just created “Start Here, Go Further with Federal Student Aid: Money for Education Beyond High School,” a video/DVD that may be obtained by calling 800 394-7084. The video includes information for counselors as well as for students and parents.

FAFSA has an easily navigated Web site ( where families can register for a PIN (the password is necessary for applying online) and find out everything they need to know about FAFSA. Urge students to complete the FAFSA online (called “FAFSA on the Web”). There are edit checks that ensure an error-free submission and that will get results much more quickly. The paper FAFSA is available in Spanish as well as English.

[Warning: is not a federally sponsored site. It is a Web site that offers assistance in the completion of the FAFSA to the tune of $79.99 and up!]

CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®

For purposes of awarding their private funds, some colleges and universities require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE. This fully Web-based financial aid application service is available at PROFILE provides students with extensive online “help” sections; customer support is available via e-mail and by phone during normal business hours.

The PROFILE application is customized to the individual needs of each student. Application customization occurs after the student has completed the PROFILE Registration process. Once the registration process is completed, the PROFILE application will only present questions that are relevant to the unique financial and family circumstances of each student.

The PROFILE Registration and Application Guide provides important information about the process and should be reviewed prior to registering for PROFILE. The Guide includes an important section for applicants to review with parents prior to completing the Registration process. The Registration Guide is available in both English and Spanish. Once the PROFILE registration step is complete, students can also review and print the Customized Pre-Application Worksheet, which can help them gather information about the unique PROFILE questions that they will be asked.

The CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE section of the College Board Web site includes a list of the colleges and scholarship programs that require it.