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Help! I need more money than the Estimated Cost of Attendance

The estimated cost of attendance usually limits student loan borrowing. However, there are a couple ways around this issue.

Written By: Michael P. Lux, Esq.

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For many college students, the Estimated Cost of Attendance acts as a limit on how much student aid they can receive.

Sometimes, the Estimated Cost of Attendance is less than the actual cost to attend school.

This kind of situation can make financing your education far more difficult than it already is. Although alternative loans are available, the best approach is usually to request an adjustment to the Estimated Cost of Attendance.

Typical student concerns about the Estimated Cost of Attendance

Here is a reader email that is a fairly typical Estimated Cost of Attendance issue:


Hello and thank you for offering this service. I’ve recently been accepted into a graduate program at Cal State Stanislaus. The only problem is that the program is in San Francisco, but they calculate the COA [Cost of Attendance] for Turlock, CA where the campus is located. As such, they estimate the COA at $42,392 per year. Tuition alone is $24,500, which would leave me with $17,892 for the entire year. Rent alone would gobble up AT LEAST about $12K, leaving me with $6,000 ($500 per month) towards expenses like food and gas. That’s obviously not going to be enough.

What loans can I apply for that aren’t tied to the COA? I’ve applied for a scholarship, but that would only reduce the COA, not add to the amount of money that I will live off of.

Loans not tied to Cost of Attendance

First, we will directly answer your question, but please be sure to read the entire response.

Student loans, by definition, are based upon the cost of attendance (COA). If you borrow beyond the COA the loan is technically not a student loan, which has major legal implications. If your loan exceeds the COA, you can’t claim the student loan interest deduction on your taxes during repayment. Also, the loan won’t have the same bankruptcy limitations as student loans. This means your interest rate would probably be much higher than it would be for a student loan.

As a college student with no income (we assume this because you are looking to borrow beyond the COA), securing a non-student loan (what’s known as a personal loan) will be highly unlikely. Many lenders provide personal loans, but beware because this is dangerous territory. Some lenders offer loans with interest rates as high (or higher) as those charged on credit cards.

Fortunately, it is possible to have the cost of attendance adjusted.

Borrowing above the Cost of Attendance

The COA is usually a fairly conservative estimate, giving most students a comfortable margin between the actual amount they need and the estimated cost of attendance. If you are concerned that you will need more than the COA, it should be a red flag. However, the cost of attendance estimation isn’t always accurate.

If you’re living in a city that’s more expensive than where the COA was estimated, that could partly explain why you’re facing this issue. But, if this is the case, it’s probably affecting other students in your program too. It’s worth asking around to see how others have dealt with this situation. This is also a good topic to bring up with your financial aid office. They might be able to provide insight or solutions based on what they’ve seen in the past.

Possible Solutions

Borrowing more money should always be a last resort.

San Francisco is a very expensive place to live. Is getting a roommate a possibility? What about living further away from campus and taking the BART (public transportation) to school?

Another option to consider is finding part-time work while you are in school. Obviously, it requires a significant time commitment, but the income from a job can help cover your living expenses and this it wouldn’t count against the Cost of Attendance.

Raising the Estimated Cost of Attendance

At many schools, the office of financial aid will consider adjusting the estimated cost of attendance. Here is an example of an estimated cost of attendance adjustment request page.

If the request is granted, students can typically borrow additional student aid to pay for school.

Even if the request is granted, students should use extreme caution with the additional borrowing. Before moving forward, take a moment to evaluate other options and determine whether or not the degree is worth the high price.

Sherpa Tip: Under federal law, the cost of attendance should be adjusted for students with costs related to a disability or dependent care costs.

The Bottom Line

$40,000 is a lot of money to borrow for one year of school. If your college is telling you that it should cost no more than $42,392, there is reason for concern if you’re struggling to stay within that budget. Either the school has made an error that should be fixed, or you have.

While personal loans do exist and would not count against the Cost of Attendance, this is an expensive solution to a problem that could possibly be resolved through other, more palatable strategies.

About the Author

Student loan expert Michael Lux is a licensed attorney and the founder of The Student Loan Sherpa. He has helped borrowers navigate life with student debt since 2013.

Insight from Michael has been featured in US News & World Report, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous other online and print publications.

Michael is available for speaking engagements and to respond to press inquiries.

12 thoughts on “Help! I need more money than the Estimated Cost of Attendance”

  1. Schools are recognized and rewarded for having a low COA. Unfortunately, this makes actual attendance- or continued attendance when credit cards are maxed out- impossible for a lot of students. Stop rewarding schools for low COA estimates!

  2. Your advice is lacking on how to actually overcome the very limited COA budgets. As a current graduate student, I have graduate student peers across 15+ programs (as a small sample), and they all note that their COA is an incredibly low number that is unrealistic for covering basic necessities. It’s not a question of a degree being worth it, but that student loans are limited by a financial aid office that is seemingly out of touch with actual costs instead of lowballed numbers.

    • Hi Kevin,

      Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. You are certainly not the only one who found their COA budget to be extremely limiting. After hearing similar comments from some other readers, I investigated the issue, and found that COA accuracy is a pretty big issue for many students.

      As for additional options beyond my suggestion of asking your school to adjust the numbers, I’m afraid the alternatives are pretty lousy. I think running up credit card debt or personal loan debt is extremely risky. Finding less expensive living arrangements or earning money during school usually isn’t the solution that most borrowers are looking for. Sadly, I don’t think there are many good options available for students who need to overcome a limiting COA.

      That said, if you do have any other ideas, I’m always happy to update articles as new information becomes available.

  3. Hi, Mr. Lux

    I am in a unique situation. Two years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer and went through all the chemo, surgeries, and radiation therapies – I’m still in cancer treatment. I haven’t been able to work due to the side effects of treatment and then the pandemic. Throughout the majority of my professional life I was a bartender and nanny. Last year I started studying cyber security through CSU Global and took out a small loan for school. Turned out, CSU Global’s curriculum was not sufficient for the certifications I needed, so I quit (also, they marked up the cost and were charging way too much for very little support, feedback, and the overall course). I then studied on my own and passed a valuable certification. I am working on a second certification and studying independently. I do not have an income and was denied for a loan recently. Are there any scholarships or grants for someone in my position? An adult female pursuing STEM, in cancer treatment, who has proven she can make the grades and get the certificates? I’m feeling quite crestfallen over here. Shame this country only gives scholarships if you’re enrolled in the overpriced college system.

    • First, let me start by congratulating you on your debt concerns while you are still getting an education. In my line of work, I mostly see people who regret their choices long after they were made.

      As for your question, I think you have identified several different avenues for which you may qualify for a scholarship. My advice is to seek out every opportunity you can find; which you seem to be well on your way to doing. I always tell people that the harder a scholarship is to find, the fewer people will apply, and the better your chances will be. I’d investigate national, state, and local organizations dedicated to empowering people such as yourself.

      I wish you the best of luck in your treatment and your studies.

    • Hi Benjamin,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Is this an opinion of yours, or do you have a source to back that up? I did some quick research to investigate your claim and haven’t found anything to suggest that the majority of colleges underestimate. However, I’d be happy to update the article if there is anything that is not accurate.


      • Hi Michael,
        As a nursing student, I can assure you the COA is far lower than the actual COA at many schools. I myself am trying to figure out how in the world to pay for this program, and I have several classmates living out of their vehicles to make ends meet. The COA in each section is lower in almost every aspect. For example, we are allotted $400 for textbooks and supplies, which is insane seeming as how our book bundle alone was $1,200. We are allotted $953 for food and housing, but most apartments (even the one I lived in that did not have AC or a toilet that flushed properly for 11 months) are well over $1,000. If I could find a way to pay for school, I know I could pay off the debt, but the problem is, in the USA, a college education is nearly impossible for low income (and even many middle class) students to obtain. There are also a great deal of people in homeless shelters now due to unaffordable tuition costs and rising rents, and there is no end in sight. Please consider that the COA is not reflective of the true COA for half the students, much less a conservative estimate, because it is an average. It is actually a huge issue, especially in medical programs.


      • Hi Erin,

        Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful response and to share your experiences.

        I will reach out to some of my contacts in financial aid to get their perspective on your situation and update the article accordingly. Out of curiosity, have you requested a COA adjustment at your school? It seems to me that you make an excellent argument for an adjustment.


      • P.S. I would attach photos of the certified COA breakdown alongside the cost of tuition, rent, and books to show just how much lower it is than the actual COA, but there is no place to do so here.

      • HI Erin,

        Based upon your comment I dug deeper into the accuracy of Cost of Attendance calculations. I think that you are right that there are times where the COA is unreasonably low.

        I still think borrowers should treat it as a red flag and make sure they are not spending too much on housing and other expenses, but if they are on a reasonable budget and it exceeds the cost of attendance, schools should adjust the COA accordingly.

        Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts and experience.

  4. I suggest to my students to look for additional scholarships in the Spring of their last year. Even $500 is meaningful! The alternative is to cut your expenses which is hard to do.


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