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Debunking How Much College Should Cost Before Even Getting In

When looking at the price tag of many of the colleges across the nation, you start to worry about paying for college. Many private universities across the nation can cost upwards of $60,000 a year and for public schools, in-state tuition is about $30,000 a year. As we know, not every family can afford to pay these high prices, and luckily, there is financial aid to help.

If you qualify for financial aid, theoretically, every college should cost just about the same for you. That is when you take scholarships out of the picture, and assume that every college has the funds to sufficiently pay for your financial aid.

So let’s go to this “perfect” world where every college costs the same. Our next question should be “What Is This Price Going To Be?” This is where Expected Family Contribution or EFC comes into play. This January, when you start filling out your FAFSA with your family’s financial information, you will get back an EFC number in your email. The number can be as low as zero and as high as 99,999 dependent on how much need the financial information shows. The lower your EFC is, the more likely you are to receive large amounts of financial aid. Add a dollar sign ($) in front of the EFC number and just like magic you find out that is just about how much you should be paying for college. If the amount is higher than the sticker price of the college, you ignore the EFC number all-together for that(those) institution(s) and be prepared to pay the normal price unless you receive merit scholarships.

But wait. There’s more.

Cost Of Attendance – EFC = Financial Aid Given

Let’s now put this in “realer” world terms with three examples. Let’s say I got accepted into Pitzer College, Whittier College, and UCLA and my EFC number the FAFSA gave me is 35,000.

Pitzer College, which has a $59,416 price tag, is known to meet 100% of demonstrated a student’s need, and my theoretical EFC number has turned out to be 35,000. That means I should be expecting a bill of about $35,000 for that given year and the remaining $24,416 ($59,416-$35,000) is covered by financial aid’s grants and loans with the addition of merit scholarships. Also, due to federal regulations , I am not allowed to be paying less than $35,000 a year unless my merit scholarship exceeds the amount in financial aid I get (Example: full-ride scholarships, half-rides, and scholarships that add up to more than $35,000).

Whittier College has a tuition of $51,790. With this I would expect to get $16,790 ($51,790-$35,000) in aid. However, Whittier is known to only meet about 79% of a student’s demonstrated need, so instead I would only get around $13,264 or 21 less percent in aid. A $3,000 difference may not be big since my theoretical EFC is high, but the more financial aid a student gets, the larger this gap will be because percentages can have extraordinary effects with bigger numbers. A student who would expect to pay nothing would end up paying about $10,000. Due to federal regulations, typically I would be allowed to use in-school or outside scholarships to meet the difference, but this usually also depends on the specific school’s financial aid policy.

I will use the $32,415 in-state tuition for UCLA as my final example. Since my EFC is 35,000, which is higher than UCLA’s sticker price, I will end up paying $32,415 unless I receive some form of a scholarship. (Just a note, even if your EFC is lower than 32,415, UCLA has never been known to meet 100% of need consistently so you still might be paying more at UCLA than at schools that meet 100% of given need).

How Do I Find Out My EFC Ahead of Time? – And Other Resources

Usually, you would have to wait until FAFSA filing time to find out your Expected Family Contribution. However, with the EFC Calculator from AidCalc you can find a pretty good estimate on what this all important number will be.

Also, collegedata.com provides amazing information on each college’s financial aid profile. They even have information on which colleges meet 100% of demonstrated need.

Miscellaneous Information and A Word About Honesty

A good idea would be to also research schools that have “no-loan” policies. This means that the school will not package loans in their financial aid package. Instead, what would normally be loans would be replaced by need-based grants or scholarships which leads to students graduating with less or no debt. (Examples: Colby, Pomona, Harvard, Princeton, Haverford, UChicago).

Also, some colleges also have their own way of calculating EFC, but if they claim to meet 100% of demonstrated need, you will still be getting around the same amount of aid +/- a few bucks.

For families with multiple children, the EFC will be slightly lower than the EFC if the family just had one child. When multiple children start to enter college, the EFC then splits almost into half, three, four, ect.(for 2, 3, 4….. children in college), giving your financial supporters a little bit ease of mind.

Lastly, NEVER EVER EVER EVER Lie About Financial Information!

As Central Washington University warns on their website:

“If you get Federal student aid based on incorrect information, you will have to pay it back; you may also have to pay fines and fees. If you purposely give false or misleading information on your application, you may be fined $20,000, sent to prison, or both.”

I hate to end this on such a scary note, but best of luck to you all!



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