A guest post by Michelle Kretzschmar, creator of the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet.
What are the three most important letters to start your college search process? SAT or ACT? With the number of colleges going test optional each year? Nope. GPA? Well I can’t deny that it will be a significant factor but not the most important in starting your search. What then?
These three letters should be accounted for about the same time you take the PSAT, if not sooner.
EFC stands for Expected Family Contribution and is the basis for what the college will eventually charge you. Unfortunately, too many families don’t encounter their EFC until they submitted their FAFSA. This is generally after all the applications have been submitted which is not a good thing.
Why? Because finding out that a school is going to charge you more than you can afford after the admission deadlines doesn’t leave anytime to find other schools that may be more affordable. So you want to estimate your EFC as early as possible.
Your EFC is calculated by the Office of Federal Student Aid when you submit your FAFSA. Theoretically, your EFC should be the amount you would pay to attend any school except in cases where EFC is actually higher than the school’s average cost of attendance (COA).
However, the EFC calculated by the FAFSA uses the Federal Methodology and basically qualifies students for federal and some state aid programs. Many colleges calculate the EFC using their own institutional methodology or modify the federal EFC with other information.
This can be a good thing if you get into a school like Princeton which provides generous need-based aid even to families with high EFCs. But most schools aren’t Princeton.
Having a high EFC doesn’t mean that you won’t receive any money from the college. Many colleges provide substantial merit-based aid, more commonly known as scholarships, to students regardless of their EFC. If you have a high EFC, you’ll want to target these schools.
And unfortunately, having a low EFC doesn’t automatically mean that a college will provide you with financial aid to make up the difference between your EFC and the COA. Some schools strive to meet student’s financial need while others have reputations for “gapping” students. In other words, even though they recognize the student’s financial needs, they do not provide enough aid to cover the difference. Knowing you have a low EFC means that you could spend time looking for schools with reputations for generous need-based aid.
You can get an estimate of your EFC at FAFSA4caster The Net Price Calculators (NPC) on college websites provide an estimate of the total net price you would pay based on their own methodologies. You’ll quickly discover that a college’s estimated net price rarely matches your EFC. Sometimes it’s because the net calculator is using old data or too broad of income categories that reduces the accuracy of the estimate. But generally, the differences reflects the school’s approach to distributing institutional aid. Having a separate EFC estimate can help you better judge the net price estimate.
Once you know your EFC, you can use websites such as CollegeData and Big Future to search schools by average percentage of financial need met. Only CollegeData provides an option to search by percentage of students receiving merit-based aid.
Even though you have to submit the FAFSA to get your actual EFC, it’s important to understand what it means long before you ever complete the FAFSA. Knowing your likely EFC means that you can send your FAFSA results to schools most likely to address your financial situation. Waiting until after you submitted your college applications to learn about your EFC may mean being accepted to schools that you can’t possibly afford without substantially contributing to the country’s student loan debt crisis.
Michelle Kretzschmar is the creator of the DIY College Rankings Spreadsheet which contains information on over 1,500 colleges that families can use to identify schools best for them. She is also very interested in college graduation rates and has created a 50-50 list of colleges that accept at least 50% of their applicants and have at least a 50% graduation rate. She will be offering an online class on “How to Get the Best Deal on a College Education” this January. Michelle received her Bachelor’s Degree in Plan II and History and Masters in Public Affairs from the University of Texas at Austin with research focusing on high school dropouts.