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Pay for College

After You Apply: The Financial Aid Process

After you submit your financial aid applications, the colleges and universities listed on your applications will receive your application data. Here is a breakdown of the financial aid process.

You will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR), which includes a summary of the information you reported on the FAFSA®, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and an estimate of the federal financial aid you are eligible to receive.

Review the information you receive carefully and make changes if necessary as outlined on the forms. If income information needs to be updated on the FAFSA, you may be eligible to use the IRS Data Retrieval Tool, which allows you to upload revised tax data directly to the FAFSA.

If the financial aid office needs additional information to calculate an offer, they will contact you directly. This is a routine process called Verification, which may require documentation that supports information you entered on your financial aid forms.

Expected Family Contribution

The Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is used by colleges to determine eligibility for need-based financial aid. It is a calculation of how much a family should be able to contribute toward educational expenses for one academic year based on the parents' and student's income and assets reported on the financial aid applications. For most families, parents' income has the biggest impact on the EFC. The EFC does not necessarily reflect what your family will pay for college costs. It is merely a calculated figure used to determine your eligibility for financial aid.

The Calculation in the EFC Formula:

  • Takes into account income and assets of parents and students (other than the portions that are protected by federal predetermined allowances)
  • Defines "income" as Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) plus untaxed income such as contributions to retirement, tax-exempt interest, and untaxed distributions from pensions
  • Is standard for every college and university in the U.S. A link to the calculation, which is updated each year, can be found on the Federal Student Aid site here. Schools that require the CSS Profile also use an institutional EFC formula to award their own institutional funds, which is not published publicly.
  • Defines "assets" as cash, checking and savings accounts, investments, and trusts. The federal formula does not take into account the value of a primary residence, life insurance policies, retirement plans, or family businesses (though the institutional formula might, depending on the school). College savings accounts are an asset of the parent, and families can reference their most recent statements to determine the value of those accounts.
  • Does not factor in household bills and personal debt
  • Treats parent and student information differently in its calculations (student income and assets are weighed more heavily)

See how much your family may be expected to contribute toward college costs with our EFC Calculator.

Special Circumstances

If your family has unusually high expenses or income fluctuations that will make it difficult to absorb college costs, contact the college's financial aid office. They may be able to consider your special circumstances when awarding your financial aid.

Cost of Attendance

The Cost of Attendance (COA) can vary significantly from college to college, and includes:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Estimates for books, supplies, travel, and personal expenses

Don't rule out a college that is a strong academic fit because of its cost. You may be eligible for more financial aid at a college with a higher COA. To find each college's COA, check the admissions, financial aid, or billing section of their website.

Your Financial Aid Offer

Colleges use standard processes for determining your eligibility for need-based financial aid:

  • For federal and state aid, your eligibility is equal to the Cost of Attendance minus your Expected Family Contribution. The more the COA exceeds your EFC, the greater your financial need — and the more aid you are eligible to receive.
  • For college-issued financial aid, the school may also consider information from the CSS PROFILE or other supplementary applications.
  • Not all colleges will meet the full financial need of your family

Colleges will award you as much financial aid as they can provide, not to exceed your total amount of eligibility. The amount of financial aid that you receive will be affected by the college's funding levels and enrollment goals.

When you receive financial aid offers from colleges — typically in March or April, along with admissions acceptance letters — carefully review them and make sure you understand the types of aid offered. Use our College Cost Calculator to compare the net cost you would need to pay at each school if you were to attend. Contact the financial aid office if you need more information or clarification about their offer, or if your family situation changes. You may want to consider asking these questions for the financial aid office. To see what your financial aid offer may look like, take a look at a sample offer.

Accepting Financial Aid and Enrollment

After you decide which college to attend:

  • If you received a financial aid offer from the college you have chosen, follow the instructions on the offer or contact the financial aid office directly to accept your financial aid. When accepting financial aid, keep in mind that you may also accept only part of the offer, decline the offer, or reduce the amount of your loans or work-study by following the directions provided in the offer.
  • Send an admissions deposit to the college you have chosen by the school's deadline (usually May 1). This deposit, which can be up to $1,000, will generally be credited to your bill and is usually non-refundable after the deadline.
  • Formally withdraw your applications and acceptances from other colleges, and decline their financial aid offers by following the instructions in their offers.

Make a Plan to Pay

Once you commit to a college or university, you should expect to receive your bill for the fall semester in late June or July. Read our details on Paying the College Bill to make sure you're prepared for the process.

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