Cost Determination Guidelines

This guideline provides information to assist in determining allowability of costs on sponsored programs, including reasonableness and allocability, as well as direction regarding the consistent treatment of costs as either a direct cost (project-specific cost) or an F&A cost (general use items routinely purchased/provided by the University).

Per Montana University System Board of Regent Policy 404 – Indirect Cost Recovery Rate, the University seeks to recover all Facilities & Administrative (F&A) allowed by the sponsor.  

Cost Principles

Cost principles required by the federal, State and University rules and regulations:

  • 2 CFR 200, Uniform Administrative Requirements, Cost Principles, and Audit Requirements for Federal Awards (effective Dec. 26, 2014).
  • OMB Circular A-21, Cost Principles for Educational Institutions, which includes the federal Cost Accounting Standards (CAS).  A-21 provides principles for determining costs applicable to research and development, training, and other sponsored work performed by the University on federally-funded sponsored agreements.
  • OMB Circular A-110, Uniform Administrative Requirements for Grants and Other Agreements with Institutions of Higher Education, Hospitals and Other Non-Profit Organizations.  OMB A-110 outlines requirements for written procedures for determining the reasonableness, allocability, and allowability of federally-funded award costs.
  • University's Cost Accounting Standards Board (CASB) Disclosure Statement (DS-2), required by OMB A-21 C.14 for universities receiving over $25 million in federal funding and 2 CFR 200.419 for universities receiving over $50 million. 
  • University's Facilities and Administrative (F&A) cost agreement with the federal government.

Cost Allowability

A cost may be charged to a sponsored agreement only if it meets all of the following criteria:

  • Reasonable
    • Project costs may be considered reasonable if the nature and amount of the goods or services acquired or applied reflect a prudent person's decision under similar circumstances to incur such costs.  (See OMB Circular A-21.C.3 and 2 CFR 200.404)
  • Allocable 
    • Costs must be specific to the project and the proportionate benefit of the cost can be allocated to the project relatively easily with a high degree of accuracy. 
    • Costs must advance, benefit, or be necessary for the sponsored agreement. Allocable costs are expenses which may be assigned or charged to one or more sponsored project cost objectives, in accordance with the relative benefits received or other equitable relationship. (See OMB Circular A-21.C.4. and 2 CFR 200.405.)
  • Treated consistently
    • Costs must consistently treated through the application of generally accepted accounting principles, Federal guidelines specifically require consistency to ensure that the same types of costs are not charged to grants as both direct (project specific) and F&A costs (general use items routinely purchased/provided by the University). This requirement ensures that the federal sponsor is not paying twice for the same costs in like circumstances. (A-21.C.11.a. and 2 CFR 200.403)
    • University departments must consistently treat costs incurred for the same purpose, in like circumstances, as either direct or F&A costs. Identification with the sponsored work rather than the nature of the goods and services involved is the determining factor in distinguishing direct from F&A costs of sponsored agreements. Where the University treats a particular type of cost as a direct cost of sponsored agreements, all costs incurred for the same purpose, in similar circumstances, must be treated as direct costs.
    • For example, the cost of materials supplied from stock or services rendered by specialized facilities or other institutional service operations may be included as direct costs of sponsored agreements, provided such items are consistently treated, in like circumstances, and are charged under a recognized method of computing actual costs and conform to generally accepted cost accounting practices consistently followed by the University.
  • Be within the type and dollar amount limitations specifically defined in the particular contract or agreement.

During award management, ORSP may request the Additional Information Request Form be provided to clarify the allowability of a specific cost.

Direct vs F&A Costs

Direct Costs

Direct costs are integral and essential to the successful completion of a project.  Such costs are project-specific and can easily and with a high degree of accuracy be identified with or assigned specifically to an activity and charged in an appropriate proportion of benefit. Thus, when a sponsored project benefits from a cost for a specific programmatic purpose, it is  considered a direct cost.  Typical costs directly charged to a sponsored agreement are:

  • compensation of employees for performance of work under the sponsored agreement, including related fringe benefit costs;
  • costs of materials consumed or expended in the performance of the work; and,
  • other items of expense incurred for the sponsored agreement, including extraordinary utility consumption.

Facilities and Administrative (F&A) Costs

F&A costs (often referred to as indirect costs or overhead) support common or joint objectives (e.g., fixed phone, general purpose office supplies, network ports, postage), routinely purchased/provided by the University, and cannot be specifically identified with a particular sponsored project, an instructional activity, or any other institutional activity. (A-21, Section E.1 and 2 CFR 200.414.) 

An institution's F&A Rate Agreement provides a mechanism to recover and reimburse the institution for these services/facilities. Therefore, on projects recovering full F&A, budgeting or charging for indirect cost items as direct costs is seldom allowable as the sponsor already "pays" for those items via an institution's F&A Rate Agreement.  

Normally, F&A costs are those costs which accrue from the general operation of the University and such costs are classified under the following categories:

  • Depreciation and use allowances,
  • General administration and general expenses, 
  • Sponsored projects administration expenses, 
  • Operation and maintenance expenses, 
  • Library expenses, 
  • Departmental administration expenses, and 
  • Student administration and services. 

These cost pools are used when determining an institution's federally negotiated F&A Rate, the mechanism that assigns the federal government's "fair share" of the cost of carrying out a project so that the institution is able to recover some of the cost of doing business on behalf of the sponsor.  

Allocation of Direct Costs to Two or More Projects

OMB Circular A-21, Section C.4.d.(3) and 2 CFR 200.405 provides two methods for allocating an allowable direct cost to two or more sponsored projects: 

A.    Proportional Benefit Rule

The proportional benefit rule applies when a cost benefits two or more projects or activities in proportions that can be determined without undue effort or cost. The department allocates the cost according to the proportion of benefit provided to each project.

Example:  The department might allocate the cost of laboratory supplies based upon the quantity used (or planned to be used) on each project.

B.    Interrelationship Rule

The interrelationship rule applies when a cost benefits two or more projects or activities in proportions that cannot be determined because of the interrelationship of the work involved. The department distributes the cost on any reasonable basis because the proportional benefit cannot be quantified and identified to the individual projects.

Example:  The department might allocate the cost of laboratory supplies based upon the allocation of employee salaries to each project.

The following criteria must be met when allocating allowable direct costs based on either the proportionate benefit rule or the interrelationship rule.

  • The benefit of the cost should be identified specifically with the sponsored project(s) relatively easily with a high degree of accuracy.
  • The department must maintain credible documentation to explain the method of allocation.

Circumstances Where Direct Charging May be Appropriate

Items such as general purpose office supplies (including computers and related hardware/software), postage, local telephone costs (including line charges, installation, port charges), memberships, and administrative and clerical salaries are normally treated as F&A costs and, therefore, seldom allowable as direct costs on projects recovering full F&A.  

Costs normally treated as F&A costs could be treated as direct costs provided they are reasonable, allocable, and the source of funding creates an unlike circumstance regarding treatment:

  1. non-federal (State, private industry, commercial sponsors, foundations, non-profits), or
  2. federal or federal flow-through with F&A recovery limited or not allowed by the sponsor, as opposed to being voluntarily reduced or unrecovered by the University. 

Direct-charging administrative/clerical staff salaries on federal or federal flow-through projects, regardless of F&A recovery, must meet all of the following conditions (2 CFR 200.413(c)):

  • Administrative or clerical services are integral to a project or activity;
  • Individuals involved can be specifically identified with the project or activity;

  • Such costs are explicitly included in the budget or have the prior written approval of the Federal awarding agency; and
  • The costs are not also recovered as indirect costs.

Documentation Required to Direct Charge Costs 

In rare circumstances where costs normally treated as F&A costs are treated as direct costs, documentation justifying the expense may be requested by ORSP. One mechanism for such documentation is the Cost Allowability Confirmation form.  


The following are examples of unique circumstances justifying direct charges:

  • Office supplies/postage:  Envelopes used to mail an unusually large number of research questionnaires.
  • Basic fixed telephone service (local) on campus:  A hotline or crisis line that is specifically required by a grant or contract.
  • Memberships:   A membership in a professional or scientific organization if joining is the only means of obtaining a specific service or good that is directly related to a grant or contract.
Salaries, Wages, Benefits - Principal Investigator
- Research Associates
- Laboratory Technicians
- Graduate Research Assistants
- Departmental administrative & clerical support staff
- Central administrative & clerical support staff
Supplies (including computers & software) Supplies, computers, and software must be project specific. Extra care must be taken to correctly code supply purchases.  For example, notebooks and paper for workshop participants should be coded as a training supply (62223) rather than an office supply (62241). Additional documentation may be needed to determine allocability. General purpose supplies, such as those used in offices whose benefit cannot be allocated to any specific project. General purpose computers and software, such as those used in offices whose benefit cannot be allocated to any specific project.
Communications (phone, cell, fax, data ports, etc.) Long distance calls that are directly related to a project. Departments must maintain documentation such as a log or access code records.  Basic services may be allowable in unusual circumstances where the benefit can be directly allocated to the project (s).  Additional documentation will be required to determine the basis for allocating the benefit. Basic communication services that supports general departmental activities and whose benefit cannot be allocated to any specific project.
Equipment Maintenance Maintenance contracts or repairs for equipment that is used specifically for one (or a few) projects. If split among multiple projects, additional documentation will be needed to determine allocability. Maintenance contracts or repairs for equipment that is used for numerous projects and the benefit cannot be allocated to any specific project (for example a departmental copier or an electron microscope in a core facility.)
Memberships & Subscriptions Memberships that may be required in order to obtain a particular service or benefit that is directly related to the project.  Additional documentation may be needed to explain the benefit to the project. Journal subscriptions or membership in professional societies where the benefit is broad across a particular discipline, such as the Journal of Applied Physics or the American Psychological Association.
Shipping & Postage Postage, shipping, or freight that is project specific (for example shipping samples for analysis).  Additional documentation may be needed to determine allocability. General purpose postage that supports general departmental activities whose benefit cannot be allocated to any specific project.