Explore the College Payment Process

Request specific payment information directly from the school that you plan to attend.

As you plan to pay for college, you and your family will notice that each school provides a dollar figure called the Cost of Attendance (COA). Many people think that the COA is the tuition bill. They question how they can pay such a large amount at one time. The truth is that the COA is not a bill. It is only an estimate of all of the expenses, including tuition, that a student will likely incur during an academic year at that school.

Each school develops a COA amount to help:

  • The financial aid office award financial aid, and
  • You and your family calculate and plan your finances for the academic year.

Below, we describe common school billing processes and payment options. Because these differ from one school to another, always request specific payment deadlines, payment options and other applicable payment processing information directly from the school that you plan to attend.

The Cost of Attendance (COA) Unmasked
The COA includes several types of expenses for the year, including:

  • tuition and fees,
  • housing,
  • food,
  • books, and
  • other miscellaneous expenses.

When you attend a school, you pay some of these expenses, such as tuition and fees, and on-campus housing (if you stay in a dorm) directly to the school.

Other expenses are not paid directly to the school. For example, if you live in an apartment off campus, you pay rent to the landlord. These expenses are included in the COA to alert you about how much you can reasonably expect to pay during an academic year.

Remember that simply because an amount is included in the school's COA does not mean that you owe that amount to the school.

Pay by semester

Although the COA provides estimated expenses for the entire academic year, schools generally charge you by the semester, the quarter, the trimester, or some other time period.

For example, if a school that uses semesters lists annual tuition and fees as $5,000 in its COA, it will charge you $2,500 in the Fall semester and $2,500 in the Spring semester. If the school operates by trimesters, you would be charged in three trimesters (i.e., approximately $1,666 each trimester).

Semester School

  COA Tuition and Fees    You pay: Fall Spring
  $5,000   $2,500 $2,500

Trimester School

  COA Tuition and Fees    You pay: Fall Winter Spring
  $5,000   $1,666 $1,666 $1,666

Paying multiple campus offices

Ideally, your tuition and fees, on-campus room and board, and other institutional charges would be combined into one bill with one payment deadline. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Many schools allow individual offices that provide a service or function to send separate bills for each service or function.

For example, your tuition and fees are billed through the Registrar's Office, the office that coordinates your class registration. If you live on campus, the Housing Office assesses your room and board charges. These separate offices often have different payment deadlines.

Therefore, it's very important to keep track of the following:

  • Your payment deadlines,
  • The amounts you pay, and
  • To whom you pay them.

Off-campus living

If you live off campus, your school is not involved in your living arrangements and other associated costs such as groceries and utilities. You pay:

  • rent to the landlord at your apartment complex,
  • utilities to the appropriate service providers (e.g., the electric company, gas company, or telephone company), and
  • for your food at the local grocery store.

Living off campus requires you to be more responsible and to manage your money more closely than when you live on campus.

As mentioned above, although the school does not bill for services it does not provide, such as apartment rent, utilities, and groceries, it provides estimates of these costs in the COA to help you and your family plan financially for the academic year. For example, if you are going to attend a college out of town, you and your family may not have a realistic idea of the cost of living in the college town. The cost of living is often significantly different between your home town and the town in which you plan to attend college, so the COA can help you plan more effectively. However, the COA is only an estimate and may not include all expenses you face personally. It is important to consider any additional expenses in your budget, such as a car payment, gas and insurance. In addition, some community colleges do not include housing in the COA, so you will need to include this expense in your budget.

Keep in mind, financial aid can help defray all of the expenses included in COA, regardless of whether you live on or off campus.

Methods for paying the school bills

As stated earlier, most schools charge by the semester, the trimester, the quarter, or some other time period. Many schools offer several methods to pay the bills.

  • Financial Aid: If you have finalized your financial aid application and you have been awarded financial aid, your school may delay the payment date for institutional charges (e.g., tuition and fees, and on-campus room and board) until the financial aid is released. The financial aid is automatically applied to your school bills, and any remaining financial aid balance is released to you for other expenses included in the COA. Be aware that in some cases, financial aid may not be sufficient to pay all of your institutional expenses.
  • Installment Plans: Many schools offer installment plans that stagger your payment dates throughout the semester. Sometimes these schools charge a small fee to use an installment plan.
  • Tuition or Emergency Loans: Some schools provide short-term loans for tuition payment or financial emergencies. Repayment periods, terms, and interest rates vary from program to program. These loans provide a financial "safety net" for students and families when unexpected circumstances arise.

Contact your school

The process and payment methods described above are common at many but not all schools. Some schools may have payment options not included in this summary.

Contact your school to find out payment options available to you. Remember: institutions of higher learning want you to attend! You are the customer. As a result, they often have payment options for tuition and fees, and on-campus room and board to suit your needs. Just ask!

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