The Beginner’s Guide to Financial Aid - Fastweb

The Beginner’s Guide to Financial Aid

Get the most out of your financial aid application by knowing more about how the process works.

By Kathryn Knight Randolph

January 02, 2018

The Beginner’s Guide to Financial Aid

If you’ve begun the college search, you’ve probably heard of a little thing called financial aid. The term is pretty self-explanatory; however, if you’ve talked to anyone who has filled out financial aid forms, the process is anything but simple. But it’s not impossible.

Learning more about financial aid on a basic level can help you get a grasp of the process and the end goal as you’re sharing information with colleges and analyzing financial aid award packages. So why don’t we start with a simple equation: COAEFC = NEED.


What’s up with the confusing acronyms? Let’s start with COA, which stands for Cost of Attendance. A school’s Cost of Attendance includes the total price for tuition, room and board, books, fees, transportation and an allowance of miscellaneous fees.

You can typically find a university’s cost of attendance under their admissions or financial aid page. Federal law also requires colleges and universities to include a net price calculator as well that provides greater transparency into the true cost of attending that particular institution.

The net price calculator will ask a lot of the same questions as the FAFSA, such as parental income, student income and cash on hand. It will then provide a look at what the students and their family can anticipate to pay towards cost of attendance after scholarships, loans and self-help. You should also keep in mind that cost of attendance changes on an annual basis, so the net price for freshmen year may be different than sophomore year and so on.


The FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, is required to determine a student’s EFC, which stands for Expected Family Contribution. EFC is defined as what a family can realistically pay for college when it comes to finances and other circumstances. This FAFSA asks a lot of questions, similar to the Net Price Calculator, about parent assets, student income and student assets, all of which help to formulate EFC.

While the form asks a lot of financial questions, it also asks about the number of family members living in the household, number of students in college at the same time, ages of each family member and state in which the student resides. Unfortunately, most of the time, the EFC and what you can actually pay don’t equal the same number.


And that’s where need comes in. Again, need is determined by Cost of Attendance minus Expected Family Contribution (COAEFC = NEED). For instance, the total Cost of Attendance at an institution may be $50K while the Expected Family Contribution is $20K. That leaves $30K in need.

While it would be ideal to get a scholarship for $30K, that’s not how the system works most of the time. Rather, the federal government and/or school will provide you with a financial aid package that contains scholarships or grants, loans and work study.

Now that you have a basic understanding of what it takes to pay for school, it’s time to start strategizing. You can begin by maximizing your aid eligibility and saving for college today.

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