To figure out how much need-based financial aid you can receive for college, all you need is some middle school-level math.
Simply subtract your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) from the cost of attending each of your prospective schools. What’s left over is the amount that could be covered by federal, state, or school-based aid, such as grants.
Unfortunately, this basic equation becomes a lot more complicated if your family is unable to cover your EFC.
In fact, you’ll have to count up all the ways to pay for college without mom and dad.
A refresher course on Expected Family Contribution
The EFC assigned to you by the federal government and your potential colleges is based on the family tax return you supply for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Your school might calculate your EFC differently than the federal government, but its reason for calculating it is the same. Your school is trying to determine how much aid you can receive to cover the cost of tuition, room and board, books, and other academic expenses.
Say your dream school costs $15,000 and your EFC is pegged at $5,000. That means you could receive up to $10,000 in grants, loans, and work-study opportunities to bridge the five-figure gap.
A higher EFC ($12,000, for example) means your family would be on the hook for a greater portion of your cost of attendance. But if your parents aren’t able to meet the EFC set by your school, you’ll have to consider other ways to pay for college.
If you haven’t completed the FAFSA yet, you could calculate your estimated Expected Family Contribution. That’ll prepare your mom and dad for the reality of paying for college.
5 ways to pay for college when you can’t meet your Expected Family Contribution
If your parents can’t contribute to your estimated Expected Family Contribution, you might resort to a drastic decision. You could build your college list with schools you can commute to, for example, avoiding on-campus room and board. Or you could delay your enrollment at a four-year school by spending two years at a cost-effective community college.
You also might consider ways to pay for college that can still send you to your top-choice schools. That’s where financial aid comes into play.
The average full-time undergraduate received $14,400 in aid during the 2016-2017 school year, according to the College Board. That figure includes averages of $8,440 in grants and $4,620 in federal loans. Here are all five of your funding options:
1. Brainstorm with your parents
The most common way for mom and dad to assist you in paying for college is to open their checkbook. In fact, 23 percent of college costs are covered by parents’ income and savings, according to Sallie Mae*†.
But even if your family can’t come close to matching your EFC, you can brainstorm ways your parents can help cover college costs. Perhaps they can set aside a small amount of their paycheck to help you pay for smaller expenses, such as books.
Even if your parents aren’t in a position to help at all, it’s important to have the conversation. You can use it to explain your situation to your prospective schools.
2. Negotiate with your potential schools
In the financial aid award letters you receive from colleges, you’ll see a breakdown of your EFC next to the amount of aid you could claim from the school itself. The aid could take the form of a grant, loan, or work-study opportunity.
Since schools calculate EFC differently than the federal government, you might ask them to clarify their methods. Some schools account for families’ medical expenses, for example, while others might not.
If your family’s finances have changed since finishing the FAFSA, you could negotiate a better financial aid package with an appeal. Via the professional judgment process, your school’s financial aid office could alter your amount of need-based aid because of an unforeseen event, such as a parent’s job loss. Just be prepared to provide documentation.
Even without unusual circumstances at play, it can’t hurt to ask financial aid representatives if there’s any leeway in your award package. The stronger your academic profile, the more leverage you’ll have in these discussions. That’s particularly true if you’ve also been accepted to similar colleges battling for your enrollment.
3. Apply for state grants and private scholarships
The EFC is imperative to the process of paying for college because it determines how much need-based aid you can receive. Need-based aid includes grants that don’t need to be repaid, such as the federal government’s Pell Grant. Your prospective schools also might offer scholarships for students who are scraping by.
Fortunately, you can find these sorts of gift aid from other sources.
Your home state also will typically review your EFC to determine your eligibility for grants. But it’s possible that your local education agency could be more receptive to your unique circumstances. You can find grants in your state by contacting the agency recommended by the Department of Education.
While you’re at it, throw your hat in the ring for scholarships. Unlike grants, scholarships are offered on a merit basis. You might score one for good grades or high test scores, for example. But don’t discount all the other reasons you might win scholarships. Awarding organizations are also likely to consider — at least as a secondary factor — your financial situation.
4. Start a part-time job or side hustle
If you can’t tap into your parents’ savings to afford your estimated Expected Family Contribution, start building your own education fund.
You might shy away from the demands of a part-time job. But any position also could help you build your resume. An internship during your summers in high school or an on-campus job during your freshman year could go a long way. Maybe it helps you save up for smaller everyday college expenses, including food and transportation.
Also consider side hustles that leverage your interests. If you’re a design major, for example, look into freelance graphic design or selling your photography.
5. Consider federal and private loans
Of all the ways to pay for college, student loans should be your last resort. That’s because loans need to be repaid with interest, unlike the money you collect via grants, scholarships, or paychecks.
A low EFC might have qualified you for a federal Direct Subsidized Loan that covers the interest during your enrollment and subsequent grace period. Short of that, you’ll have to rely on Direct Unsubsidized Loans for your freshman year. The federal government limits first-year, dependent undergraduates to $5,500 worth of these loans.
If your mom or dad is willing to take out a loan in their name, a Parent PLUS Loan from the federal government could fill any remaining gap.
Federal loans are generally safer than private loans because they can be easier to repay. The federal government allows you to switch your repayment plan. You also can pause payments using deferment or forbearance under some circumstances.
Although they can be less flexible, private lenders might be able to guarantee you a lower interest rate. To score it, you’ll likely have to apply with a cosigner who has a strong credit history. That’s one more way for a parent to help when they’re not able to cover the EFC.
Find the money you need for college
You don’t need to know algebra to figure out how to pay for college. But if you and your family can’t meet your EFC, you might need to be a little creative to make sense of the math.
No matter where you are in the college process, consider these ways to pay for college. Add them up, and you could have the perfect solution.
*Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
†The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.
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1 = Citizens Disclaimer.
2 = CollegeAve Autopay Disclaimer: All rates shown include the auto-pay discount. The 0.25% auto-pay interest rate reduction applies as long as a valid bank account is designated for required monthly payments. Variable rates may increase after consummation.
* The Sallie Mae partner referenced is not the creditor for these loans and is compensated by Sallie Mae for the referral of Smart Option Student Loan customers.
3 = Sallie Mae Disclaimer: Click here for important information. Terms, conditions and limitations apply.
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