By Justin Munio
As most parents and students are aware, if you need money to go to college then you deal with the financial aid department. These are the people that are in charge of awarding grants, scholarships, student loans, and work-study packages. Figuring out how the college determines who gets money and who doesn’t can often times seem tricky, so let’s try to look at this process in as simple a format as possible.
Now, the concept is that financial aid goes to those families who need it the most. To determine this, colleges use two factors:
Cost of Attendance (COA) and Estimated Family Contribution (EFC). Then, the financial aid department uses a simple formula: COA – EFC = NEED.
How to Calculate the Cost of Attendance
Your COA is pretty straightforward. It is the cost of tuition, room & board, books, fees, transportation, and an allowance for miscellaneous fees. The COA at a college can change every year, so financial aid is recalculated every year. Remember to include all of the items I just mentioned in your budget, since that is exactly what the college is doing when figuring out your financial aid. If you forget to factor in the cost of textbooks, you may not have enough money when you head off to college in the fall.
How to Calculate Your Estimated Family Contribution
Your EFC is a bit more complicated because the college is trying to determine how much money they think your family can afford to spend on college. Unfortunately, your EFC is never going to be as low as you would prefer (unless of course it’s $0), but it is important to know what factors impact your EFC. There are many different things that go into the calculation of your EFC, but four of the biggest influences are Parent Income, Parent Assets, Student Income, and Student Assets.
Other factors that can influence your EFC include the number of family members in your household, the number of students in college at the same time, the ages of each family member, and even what state you live in. If this seems complicated, plenty of other families are thinking the same thing. Much like how a CPA can help you with your taxes, a good college advisor should be able to help you understand your EFC.
Determining Your Financial Need
The last step in the process is to determine your NEED. This is how much financial aid you may be eligible for. Let’s say for example that your college has a COA of $50,000 and your EFC is $20,000. This means your NEED is $30,000 ($50K-$20K=$30K). Now, does this mean that you’re going to get a $30,000 scholarship? Not usually. Most colleges will award you some combination of grants/scholarships (free money) and work-study/student loans (self help). Keep in mind that money you receive based on this formula is called “Need-Based Aid”. Scholarships that you get for having a really high GPA or good SAT scores are called “Merit-Based” and are awarded based on separate criteria. Even if your EFC is higher than a college’s COA, you could still receive “Merit-Based” aid (so study hard!)
Next time we’ll talk about your EFC in more detail and explore the fact that there are 2 possible EFC formulas a college could use, each with a different set of questions.