Every family has an expected family contribution (EFC) that is calculated by using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the College Board’s CSS Profile. It is the Department of Education’s estimate of the minimum amount your family can afford to contribute towards paying for college.
Unfortunately, colleges are under no obligation to cover the rest of the cost. The amount you are expected to pay can be far higher than your EFC, because many colleges do not have the resources to cover that difference.
Even if you do get offered grants and scholarships to cover the gap between the total cost of college and your EFC, the Department of Education’s idea of “affordable” differs greatly from what most families consider affordable. That is why you need to be a savvy consumer when choosing a college.
Informed families start by understanding how much a college is likely to cost before your student even applies. Ideally, your student should apply to schools where he or she will be in the upper quartile (25%) of the incoming class. That is when your student is likely to get the maximum amount of financial and merit-based aid. If your student is in the lower half of the class, your family will be paying full retail and often more than your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).
This is why it does not make sense to pursue “stretch schools” as many guidance counselors suggest. Getting into a stretch school practically guarantees you will be paying more than your family can “afford” according to the federal government.
College is one of the big life expenses for any family. To make it more affordable, ensure that your student is picking schools where he or she will be a top 50% candidate for the incoming class based on SAT/ACT scores and GPA. This one decision will make a big difference in the total cost of attendance.
If you would like some help making sure that college is affordable for your family, I would love to help.