EFC Cheat Sheet: Summing Up

This lesson summarizes the key take-away points regarding Expected Family Contributions. This lesson can also be downloaded EFC Calculatorvia your resource guide, EFC Primer: What You Need to Know About Expected Family Contributions.

1. An Expected Family Contribution is a dollar figure that represents what financial aid formulas believe you should be able to pay for one year of a child’s college education.

Families with adjusted gross incomes of $25,000 or less have an automatic EFC of $0. The EFC for the average American household with an AGI of $54,000 will usually range from $2,000 to $4,000.

There is no cap on EFCs so some very wealthy families will have EFCs that exceed the cost of an expensive private university.

2. It’s best to get a ballpark idea of what your Expected Family Contribution will be as early as your child’s freshman year in high school. Obtaining a preliminary EFC will give you a rough idea of the minimum amount that you will be expected to pay for college.

3. Before you assume that you won’t qualify for financial aid, obtain your EFC. Families with household incomes of $60,000 to $80,000 and above often find that they do not qualify for need-based aid at state universities, but they may qualify for need-based aid at private schools.

4. If you discover that you have a high EFC and you aren’t eligible for need-based financial aid, you can look for schools that provide merit scholarships that are given regardless of need.

5. If your EFC is modest, you should search for schools that provide excellent need-based assistance and also apply to public universities/colleges in your state.

6. Families will often have to pay more for college than their EFC indicates they can afford because most schools do not meet 100% of a student’s demonstrated financial need. Consequently, it’s important to identify the most generous schools that would consider your child an attractive candidate. You’ll learn how to use online tools to evaluate the generosity of schools in the module entitled, Tools to Find Generous Schools.

7. You can obtain your Expected Family Contribution by using the College Board’s EFC calculatorWith this calculator, you’ll want to obtain your EFC using the federal and institutional formulas. Since the College Board is the creator of the institutional methodology, it’s best to use this calculator.

8. The EFC you obtain from the federal methodology (it’s generated by the FAFSA) will often be different than the one you obtain using the institutional methodology (it’s generated by the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE) because the underlying formulas are different. The vast majority of private and public colleges and universities only use the FAFSA while 229 mostly private, selective schools use the PROFILE.

9. When you complete the FAFSA, you will receive your official federal EFC via an electronic document called the Student Aid Report (SAR). Here is a sample SAR.

10. If you need to file the PROFILE, you will not receive your EFC from the College Board, which owns and operates this financial aid application. Institutions that use the PROFILE can customize their aid applications by choosing from hundreds of different questions so you will end up with a different EFC for each school.  You should ask each PROFILE school for your EFC if the institutions do not include this important dollar figure on your financial aid awards.

11. Many schools do not include a family’s EFC on their financial aid awards. Some institutions make the dubious excuse that including the EFC on their aid letters will confuse families. More likely, schools don’t want to share EFC figures with families because parents could then determine if the aid package is stingy.

12. Once you have your EFC and the financial aid package, compare your EFC with what a school is offering. Let’s say that the cost of a school after deducting institutional grants is $39,000 and your EFC is $28,000. That means there is an $11,000 gap between what your EFC suggests that you can pay and what the school wants to charge you.

You can appeal based on this funding gap. Whether you are successful will depend in part on the inherent generosity (or lack of generosity) of a school and how much the institution wants your child.

13. Your EFC probably won’t be a true indicator of what you can afford to pay for college. The FAFSA formula, in particular, is a flawed creature of Congress.

14. Plug new numbers into the EFC calculator if your financial situation changes due to such things as a divorce, separation, death, disability, job loss or the care of an elderly parent.


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  1. We have 20K in our savings ear marked for home repairs that are badly needed. Should we take the money out in cash before we apply so that this does not get applied toward our overall savings?

    1. Post

      Hi Deborah,

      I can’t tell you what to do. I can tell you that $20,000 in savings would only boost your EFC by $1,000 with PROFILE schools. And remember PROFILE schools give parents an asset allowance though it doesn’t divulge what the formula is. Run this money in a school’s net price calculator and then leave it out and you’ll see the impact is minimal.

      State schools use the FAFSA (parent assets assessed at up to 5.64%), but you would not qualify for need-based aid except for schools in your own state. In California, you would need to qualify for the Cal Grant and if you don’t than that $20,000 wouldn’t matter.

      Lynn O.

  2. Hi Lynn,

    I’ve been trying to better understand how insurance policies are used to finance college. And, apologies for my ignorance, but how would it compare to a 529? Pros, cons.

    More specifically, referring to Dave’s comment ($100K in a UTMA vs 529), would it make any sense to put the $100K into an insurance policy?


  3. A couple of odd takeaways from playing with the EFC:

    1) Since home equity is ignored in the Federal calculation, a family could theoretically use its investments to pay off it’s mortgage and – from the Fed’s standpoint – the money (and its contribution to EFC) disappears

    2) Money in UTMA accounts is penalized HUGELY in these calculations. $100K sitting in a UTMA creates $20-$25K of EFC. If those same dollars were put in a 529 (which are included in parents’ investments), they barely register for EFC.

  4. Hi Lynn,

    We are totally new to this endeavor… Is it routine to approach the financial aid office of a school to ask for your EFC? Does that mean that you would give them the numbers that they would need to plug in? Our child may be interested in applying ED to a highly selective school (that meets 100% need). We certainly would not want to put ourselves in a situation where the net price is unreasonable, or get her hopes up about an impossible situation. Is it possible to find out that information before we would stick our necks out?


    1. Hi Stacey,

      Using the EFC calculators will give you an idea of what your EFC will be in general. It should give you an excellent idea of your federal (FAFSA) EFC since it depends on one standard formula. The institutional EFC for the PROFILE schools, howe er, will change because PROFILE schools can modify the financial aid form by adding all sorts of additional questions. Schools use the PROFILE to determine who gets their in-house money

      I’d recommend that you use the net price calculator for the schools your child is interested in to see what the net price would be. Highly selective schools typically offer very good calculators which should give you a good idea of what you’d be expected to pay.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  5. Hi Lynn,

    I understand that families need to find out their EFC before identifying schools with policies most favorable to their financial situation. However, I wonder if this is applied to international families as well. If the EFC formula does not apply to international students, where can international families begin?

    Thank you.

    Hong Anh

    1. Hi Hong,

      There are some schools – mostly elite institutions – that do provide need-based aid to international students so I wouldn’t say that running the calculator is a wasted effort if your families are aiming for elite institutions. You can see a list of schools that meet 100% of financial need in the Bonus Material module.

      In most cases, however, international students will be looking at finding merit aid. As a practical matter, foreign students will generally be treated the same as high-income students. I would definitely use net price calculators for schools your students are interested in pursuing. I would also familiarize myself with how to use the College Board, COLLEGEdata and the Common Data set on how to evaluate schools financially. You will learn about these resources in the Tools to Find Generous Colleges module.

      Also check out The Ultimate College List Builder and also I’d check out A Guide to Building a Perfect College List, which could generate ideas for you.

      Lynn O.