The Expected Family Contribution (EFC): Myth and Reality

Written by Nell McCormack Abom, Host Smart Talk TV | Mar 15, 2010 9:21 PM

It just might not be where you would expect to find it. You see colleges and universities are not doling out financial aid indiscriminately. Rather, they are directing aid, both need and merit-based, to the students whom they value most.

As a result, the questions of “who gets how much” and “why” loom large on the horizon as families make enrollment decisions.

Historically, the concept of “expected family contribution” was at the heart of the financial aid process. To receive assistance from a college, a student needed to demonstrate that his/her family was not able to cover the full costs of attending. Financial aid was intended to make up the difference—to bridge the gap.

While the basic process for “demonstrating need” remains in place, it is an increasingly bureaucratic exercise that does little more than determine a student’s eligibility for funding from the state and federal governments. The degree to which an institution elects to extend itself financially to a young person is increasingly a function of the latter’s desirability regardless of “demonstrated need.” As a result, many financial aid programs feature hybrid award programs (need and merit-based) that reflect the agendas of the awarding institution.

The upshot of all this for families is that it is harder to anticipate actual college costs. Unless you are able to receive an estimate of your expected family contribution (EFC) directly from the financial aid office of the schools to which you are applying, anticipating college costs will be a guessing game. And, even with such an estimate, you can’t proceed with certainty.

In the final analysis, your EFC is what a college or university wants it to be. The distinction between need-based and merit-based aid is sufficiently blurred at many schools so that it is often difficult to measure the true impact of the EFC in the awarding of financial aid.

I mention this because a lot of families are turning to online tools, including estimators provided by colleges themselves, to begin calibrating their EFC’s. These estimators are constructed with generic qualifiers that don’t reflect the various agendas that come into play as colleges decide whom they want to target with offers of admission and financial aid.

As you begin to develop strategies for anticipating and managing college costs, do so with your eyes wide open. The decision to admit and support a student with financial aid is a calculated decision that is often driven by the student’s desirability to the institution.

Peter Van Buskirk is an author, consultant, speaker and creator of the Best College Fit™ Resources. Visit to learn more about Peter and his student-centered approach to college planning.

Published in Life After 12th Grade

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