Many families assume their search for college cash ends when they file the FAFSA (see my blog for January 30). That's really just the beginning -- here's what to know after you hit submit:
Remind me again. What's the EFC? EFC stands for Expected Family Contribution. This is what you and your family can afford to pay for college, at least according to Congress. This figure is based on the information you provide on your free federal aid application, FAFSA.
What do colleges do with this number? They use your EFC as the starting place to build your financial aid package. If your EFC is $8,000, and the college costs $15,000 to attend, the college will try to find the $7,000 you need to go there. If College B costs $20,000 to attend, they'll try to find the $12,000 you need to be a student there. If College C costs $6,000, they won't be finding any money for you, since FAFSA indicates you can pay that much on your own.
My EFC is way too high -- there's no way I can afford this much for college. What can I do? If you have a money issue FAFSA doesn't take into consideration, financial aid officers can use "professional discretion" and offer more financial support. This is one reason why some colleges offer you more aid than others. Be ready to provide documentation to support your situation, and don't be afraid to ask.
How do colleges help me pay for college? Most colleges offer three kinds of financial aid: grants, or money you are given that you don't have to pay back under most circumstances; work study, where you take a part-time job at the college to pay off part of your tuition; loans, where you're offered a low-interest loan you usually don't have to start paying off until you're out of school.
Will my financial aid be mostly loans? Over the past 10 years, more and more colleges are giving bigger loans as a part of financial aid, while other colleges have eliminated loans all together. If loans are part of your financial aid package, ask the college about the terms of repayment, and make sure you look at other options.
Like what? This is where private scholarships can be a big help. If you win a $500 scholarship from your local chamber of commerce, you should report it to your college. Most colleges (that's most colleges) will then take $500 off of the loan part of your financial aid package. They'll keep doing this until your loan part is gone, so look for those private scholarships -- they can make a huge difference!
Do I have to accept an entire financial aid package, or can I just take the grants and work study? You have the right to take, reduce or turn down any part of a college's financial aid offer. Students often turn down the loan portion, or accept only part of it, and decide they will work more during summers and weekends. Other students decide not to take the work study part of the package, at least for first semester -- this gives them a chance to focus on their studies.
Do colleges have to meet all of my aid? Unfortunately, many colleges don't have enough money to meet 100 percent of the financial needs of all students, and other colleges don't meet all of your need as a strategy to see if you can't pay more of your own way. Many colleges will advertise they meet all need as an incentive for students to apply; if you don't know, ask.