With the financial aid season in full swing, a lot of families are becoming anxious about the expected family contribution (EFC), which is the amount of money you and your family will be expected to pay for you to attend the college of your choice.
The EFC is determined by the information you submit on your college financial aid application and can be met through a variety of sources, including savings, gifts, grants, scholarships, student loans, and parent loans.
Applying for College Financial Aid
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The financial aid process begins when you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Most, although not all, colleges and universities require students to complete and submit the FAFSA as the first step in the financial aid process. Without the FAFSA, you won't be eligible for government-funded grants or student loans that the school awards.
Although a federal form, the FAFSA is also used by many states and schools to determine awards of state-funded grants and college loans, as well as institutional scholarships and other financial aid.
Once you submit your FAFSA, the financial information you've provided is analyzed, and the results are summarized in the Student Aid Report (SAR). Your SAR will be submitted to each college and university that you designate and will be used by the schools to determine your EFC.
Your EFC can be determined in one of two ways: Some schools use a standard federal calculation to determine how much you're capable of contributing toward the costs of your college education. Other schools use an institutional EFC, the calculation of which varies from school to school.
Thus, your EFC can be different for every school to which you're applying. Some schools may determine that you only need to contribute a few hundred dollars to the cost of your education, while other schools may decide that you're able to commit a few thousand.
Financial Need and Student Aid
As a college student, your "financial need" is determined by subtracting your EFC from your school's cost of attendance, which includes not just tuition and fees, but also a room and board allowance, textbook costs, transportation costs to and from school, and other school-related expenses.
Need-Based Student Aid
Schools that pledge to meet 100-percent of financial need will award you a student aid package that covers your full financial need amount. A student aid package may consist of scholarships, grants, student loans, and federal work-study.
Since your financial need is partly a function of your school's cost of attendance, if you're looking to attend a private college or university, you may qualify for more need-based financial aid than if you choose to attend a less expensive public university or community college.
Certain federal student aid programs, such as Pell Grants, Perkins college loans, and subsidized Stafford student loans, are based on economic need and are typically awarded to low-income students who demonstrate the greatest levels of financial need.
Non-Need-Based Student Aid
However, the government also makes billions of dollars of non-need-based financial aid available each year. Federal unsubsidized Stafford student loans are awarded without regard to financial need and can be used to help you meet your EFC. Stafford loans don't require a credit check or a co-signer, and most students are eligible for unsubsidized Stafford loans.
Federal parent loans, known as PLUS loans, are also available for parents of undergraduates without demonstrated financial need. Your parents can use PLUS loans to help meet your EFC.
Outside of federal options, merit-based scholarships and private student loans offer other forms of non-need-based financial aid. Private student loans are credit-based, non-federal education loans offered by banks and private lenders that can generally help you cover up to 100 percent of your certified school expenses.
Qualifying for College Financial Aid
Since the FAFSA uses your financial and tax information from the previous year, your financial circumstances may have changed in the meantime, leaving you unable to meet your EFC.
In the case of substantial changes in your family's financial circumstances, such as unemployment or severe illness with unexpected medical bills, you may be eligible for a recalculation of your EFC and additional financial aid. Contact your financial aid office and alert them to the change in your circumstances.
Federal hardship rules also allow some students to receive larger college loans if a parent dies or is determined to be ineligible for a federal parent loan.
One caveat regarding eligibility for federal college aid: If you've been convicted of selling illicit drugs, you're ineligible to borrow or benefit from government student loan and federal student aid programs. Students convicted of simple drug possession, however, may still qualify for federal grants, college loans, and other forms of government student aid.