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Making Sense of Your EFC

Making Sense of Your EFC

Learn about how your EFC is calculated and what comes after.

By Kathryn Knight Randolph

January 23, 2012

Everyone has an idea of what their EFC (Expected Family Contribution) should be, but it typically never matches with what the FAFSA declares, leaving a lot of students and families clambering for more options to pay for school.

Understanding how the EFC is determined and what happens after might lead to greater transparency into the process, helping you and your family to think more realistically about financial aid and the true cost you and your family will be paying.

How EFC is Calculated

Your EFC “is a measure of your family’s financial strength and is calculated according to a formula established by law,” according to fafsa.ed.gov. This formula configures the following:

• Taxed and untaxed income
• Assets
• Benefits, like unemployment and Social Security
• Family size
• Number of family members enrolled in college

The only way your family would qualify for full financial aid assistance is with an EFC of 0. While many students may hope that they’ll be expected to pay nothing, the reality is that nearly every student will have to pay somehow.

Even if you did have an EFC of 0, the financial aid package would likely contain loans (unless you enrolled in an institution with no loan policies for low-income students like UNC Chapel Hill), which would require you to eventually pay for some of your education anyway.

How Your EFC is Used

Once your EFC has been determined, the schools you have applied to take that number and create a tailored financial aid package for you. They do this by subtracting your EFC from the school’s cost of attendance at your school, which includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies and personal expenses and transportation. This figure is thus named your “need.”

Get more expert advice on the FAFSA.

The components of a financial aid package attempt to meet this need and are separated into grants, work study and loans. But not every student will qualify for each of these components. Some may receive grants and work study, while others will only receive loans.

If your EFC is greater than the cost of attendance, there’s a very slim chance you will receive any financial aid. The only option for you, then, would be to take out a unsubsidized Stafford loan or PLUS loan in the event that you needed assistance in paying for school.

Discrepancies in Your EFC

If you believe that your EFC isn’t a realistic picture of what you can pay for school, you have the opportunity to combat that number with your school’s financial aid office through a professional judgment.

A financial aid officer will likely make a professional judgment in your favor if it’s an unusual circumstance like job loss, disability or a parent in school at the same time. You’ll find little help, though, in calling your financial aid office to declare that your EFC is “unfair” if you don’t have a circumstance to prove it.

Essentially, many families will find that their EFC is unfair and not an accurate representation of what they think they can really pay. The point is that you will have to think out of your comfort zone when it comes to financing your education. Maybe that means taking out federal loans or choosing another school entirely that fits within your budget.

Unfortunately, the EFC is the reality check of the college search. Up to this point, it’s been nice to focus on getting into the “the dream school,” but this is the time to start asking those tough questions about paying for said dream school.

What can you do to help your situation and make college more affordable? Is that college worth all of the debt that you would rack up or is there a less costly option? Can you be applying for more scholarships? Should you start at a community college and then transfer? Is your dream school worth it no matter what?


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