The financial aid process begins when students and parents complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA. The FAFSA is required by any post secondary school that awards federal student aid. Approximately 300 'more selective' private institutions and three public institutions (University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, University of Michigan - Ann Arbor, and Georgia Institute of Technology) require applicants to also fill out the CSS Profile to assess eligibility for the college's own institutional aid. The goal of both the FAFSA and CSS Profile is to arrive at a student's EFC, or expected family contribution, which is the minimum dollar amount a student and family are expected to contribute toward the cost of college.
The FAFSA and the CSS Profile each utilize calculations to arrive at an EFC based upon the family's income, assets, and family size. Please note that the FAFSA and the CSS Profile use differing algorithms to arrive at an EFC, so families should expect the EFCs to be different under each of the methodologies. Then colleges employ a simple formula to determine a student's need based financial aid which subtracts the student’s EFC from the college's total cost of attendance (Financial Need = Cost of Attendance – EFC). If the college's cost of attendance is more than the student's EFC, then the student qualifies for need-based financial aid. However, qualifying for aid is not a certainty; the student must wait for the official award letters from the schools' financial aid departments to see what forms of aid are offered (e.g., scholarships, loans, work study) and for what dollar amounts.
Some families assume they will not qualify for need based assistance based upon myths and hearsay, most frequently because they have higher earnings. However, income is only one factor in the methodologies used by FAFSA and the CSS Profile. The cost of attendance at a particular school is even more pertinent. For instance, while a student may not qualify for need-based assistance at a moderately priced public university, s/he may qualify for considerable aid at a pricier private college.
My advice is to obtain an assessment early on in the college search process of whether your student may qualify for need based aid by using this free financial aid calculator. The calculator will provide an estimated EFC based upon family income, assets, and family size. This calculator is not a substitute for filling out the FAFSA and CSS Profile, but is only a tool to estimate a family's minimum dollar contribution toward the cost of college.
If you feel professional expertise is needed, please contact Mears College Consulting LLC today.