Like many things in the financial world, understanding the world of college aid process can feel like a bit of a mystery. In an effort to de-mystify, let's start with the Free application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This application is the most popular and should be filed by everyone going to college. Some colleges however require additional information called the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE form. Some other colleges can require even more information though usually these are the more highly selective private colleges. The questions are being asked to get to an understanding of the parents' and student's available income and assets. Upon the submission of the information you will be told your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) which is usually more than you think you can afford but theoretically (usually pretty true) this EFC is used by any college that your student may apply to.

The next number that is important is the cost of attendance (COA) of the school you choose. This cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, personal expenses along with books and supplies. The financial aid officer at the institution that you apply to then puts together a package of aid (grants, work-study and loans) that will hopefully come close to making up the difference between what they feel you can afford (usually your EFC) which is your need (more on this under the College award letter dropdown). So, theoretically any school that the student applies to could receive the difference between COA and EFC no matter the cost. So, a state university and a private college that has a much higher 'price tag' could cost the family about the same. However, this shouldn't be relied on since there are (again) a number of factors that determine if this is the case. Either way, it is important to also know that one college may give lots of aid, but most of it is in loans while another gives less aid but more grants. Some of the factors involved in this are a students' grades, SAT, ACT scores, geography and other factors. In addition, the college's finances can play a role as well.

Knowing that examples can often help to offer some clarity, you will find below some numbers that will continue from an example that we began under the Pre-qualification drop down. We put the information from the pre-qual sheet into our software that models the FAFSA and Profile formulas that colleges use to determine financial aid (numbers can and will vary from the actual formulas). Please note that there is more information required than the sheet showed when inputting the data so we made some assumptions. This is a good time to emphasize that no person's information is the same so it is important that you not make the assumption that if your situation is similar to our example you will get the same results.


  State University Private College
Cost of Attendance $23,013 $51,858
Expected Family Contribution  $13,716 $13,716
Financial Aid   $ 7,438 $33,184
Unmet Need   $1,859  $ 4,958
Total family Contribution  $15,575  $18,674
Type of Aid:    
Loans $5,600  $3,500  
Grants $1,838 $29,684 

As you can see, the COA is not necessarily your cost, instead it is important to look at what aid package each institution offers. One other thing to think about when reviewing the cost is that the State University only graduates 49% of the students in 6 years while the private college has a 74% average. Of course your student's goal is to graduate in 4 years and averages can be distorted. However, given the lower class size in the private institution there is some logic that would indicate that the extra attention that a student gets could make it easier to graduate in a shorter period of time.