Financial aid basics

In this post, we’ll help you understand financial aid when applying to colleges so you can:

  • understand your EFC
  • apply to colleges that will be a good financial fit
  • graduate from college debt-free!

Know your EFC

  • What’s an EFC?
    • EFC stands for Estimated Family Contribution
    • This is the amount of money the school/government expects your family to pay each year towards your education
    • Your EFC will determine how much colleges give you in grants/scholarships/loans, and will determine your eligibility for federal programs like Pell Grants
  • FAFSA: how you find your EFC
    • The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is the application you are required to fill out if you want to receive financial aid from the government and colleges
    • FAFSA pdf: this will give you an idea of what questions the FAFSA requires (but you should submit the FAFSA online when you’re ready)
    • Submit the FAFSA as soon as you can after October 1 (when it is released) in order to be eligible for the most money!
    • Students who are undocumented are not eligible for federal aid and therefore cannot fill out the FAFSA. Check with your mentor/counselor if you think this applies to you; you may still be able to fill it out depending on your status.
  • CSS Profile
    • This is an application for NON-FEDERAL (not provided by the government) student aid
    • Some schools require you to fill out the CSS Profile in addition to the FAFSA – be sure to check if your schools require it!
    • Students who are undocumented CAN fill out the CSS Profile
  • Net price calculators
    • A more precise way to estimate the amount of financial aid you will get from a particular school is to fill out that school’s net price calculator
    • Most schools have a net price calculator. The easiest way to find them is to google “[school’s name] net price calculator”

Apply to colleges that will give you free money

  • Schools that meet need
    • Most colleges publish the amount of need they meet — in other words, how much financial aid they give out to applicants
    • Schools that meet a lot of need usually have students who graduate with less student debt
      • Students that go to schools that DON’T meet a lot of need generally graduate with a lot of debt
    • Schools that meet 100% of need are schools that promise to make sure that all students’ financial need is completely covered through grants, work-study, scholarships, and sometimes loans
    • !!However!! Even if a school meets 100% of need, that doesn’t necessarily mean you will go to college for free
      • It all goes back to your EFC – a college that meets 100% of need still expects you to cover your EFC
  • When you’re building your college list, make sure you know how much need the schools meet
    • Yleana recommends applying to schools that meet at least 80% of need
    • If you are applying Early Decision, ONLY apply to schools that meet 100% of need
      • This is INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT. ED is binding: if you get accepted ED, you are required to attend that college.
      • Schools generally don’t send out financial aid packages at the same time as they send out ED acceptances
      • You don’t want to be stuck with a large bill once the financial aid packages are sent out
  • How to know how much need a school will meet

Understand your financial aid award letter

Financial aid award letters can be confusing. Sometimes loans are disguised as free money on the letter, so you have to look closely before accepting any financial aid package.

Check out our breakdown of a financial aid award letter here!

Apply to scholarships to fill the gap

  • Once you know your EFC (either estimated through a school’s net price calculator OR the real thing), you can target which scholarships to apply to
    • For example, if your EFC is $4,000, you don’t need to apply to $10,000 scholarships. Instead, you can focus on scholarships that are $4,000 or less
  • Check out scholarship lists and more information here

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