Let’s Talk About Expected Family Contribution

Published by Wendy Nelson on

Handing over moneyBefore we go on with the Upside Down College Search process, let’s talk about Expected Family Contribution.

Last week, I said that this week’s topic would be “What Deals Can You Get?” As I started writing that, I found the need to explain a lot of background information related to Expected Family Contribution, so it seemed to make sense to pause and cover that before moving on.

When you calculated what your family could afford for college, you came up with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) number. You may or may not agree that your family can afford to pay this amount each year for college, but either way, this is an estimate of the amount a school will expect you to come up with.

There are several ways your EFC can potentially be covered:

  • Actual money you pay to the school out of pocket or from college savings
  • Institutional merit scholarships the school provides to your student (more on this later)
  • Private scholarships (although in many cases, these will impact any need-based aid you are offered)

If the college costs more than your EFC, you will probably be offered need-based aid and/or merit-based aid towards the difference, although the school is under no obligation to cover the full difference between the cost of attendance and your EFC.

The difference between the cost of attendance and your EFC is called your “financial need”.


Some of the Ways a College May Attempt to Cover Your Financial Need:

  • Federal and state need-based aid in the form of grants and scholarships (don’t need to be paid back)
  • Federal student loans (must be paid back)
  • Federal Work Study Program (student works on campus to earn money to pay towards cost of attendance)
  • School’s need-based aid in the form of scholarships and grants (don’t need to be paid back)
  • Parent PLUS loans (must be paid back)
  • School’s merit-based aid in the form of scholarships and grants (don’t need to be paid back)

As I said above, a college is under no obligation to cover your financial need.  When the college does not cover your full financial need, this is called “gapping”. When this happens to a student, it usually means that the school is not a “preferred” admissions candidate. In other words, the school liked the student well enough to offer admission, but not well enough to make sure he or she can afford to attend! (So the school really doesn’t care if the student attends or not.)

In the example shown above, if Tulane offers less than $27,714 in aid, including both need-based aid and merit-based aid, it is “gapping” that student.

That pretty much sums up covering “Financial Need”, the gap between cost of attendance and your Expected Family Contribution. But what if you can’t afford to cover your Expected Family Contribution? This is more difficult, but you have a few options:

  1. Find a college with a sticker price lower than your EFC. (Hopefully you will also end up paying less than sticker price!)
  2. Find a college that will offer your student enough merit aid to cover some or all of your EFC.
  3. Hope that your student will win enough in Private Scholarships to cover some or all of your EFC.

In the Upside Down College Search process, we focus on #2. 

#1 is always an option, especially if you consider in-state public universities and community colleges.

#3 can be done, but it’s very difficult to make a significant dent with private scholarships. According to a Cappex article, only about 12% of students receive private scholarships and the average total amount per student is less than $4,000.

Next week, I will talk about how to find colleges that will offer merit scholarships that will cover some or even all of your EFC.