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3 Things to Know About the Expected Family Contribution and College Affordability

The federal government should slash the Expected Family Contribution, argues an op-ed in Friday’s New York Times by Steve Cohen, co-author of a recent book on admissions and student aid.

Cutting the expected contribution, he suggests, “would force colleges to construct financial-aid packages without the artificial price supports of inflated contribution numbers—and make paying for college less agonizing.”

The Expected Family Contribution, or EFC, is calculated with data families provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. That figure is subtracted from a college’s cost of attendance to determine a student’s financial need. Eligibility for federal financial aid is based on that calculation of need, and many states and colleges also use it to distribute their need-based aid.

Here are three things to know about the EFC and college affordability (as well as a selection of tweets on Friday about the issue):

  1. The EFC is generally seen as an unrealistic measure of families’ ability to pay for college. You can read a good explanation of why that is here and a previous call to change it here. And perhaps the federal government knows this. Despite the name, current government publications define EFC not as what families can pay but as a number that determines students’ eligibility for federal student aid.

  2. Some families pay even more than their EFC. At colleges that don’t meet students’ full demonstrated need—i.e., most colleges—some students are “gapped,” meaning that the aid they receive, added to their EFC, is still less than the cost of attendance. Just a small number of wealthy colleges pledge to meet the full demonstrated need of each and every student. And those colleges tend to collect more financial information from families than the government does to do their own calculation of need. So in some cases, families there still pay more than their federal EFC.

  3. Money for college still has to come from somewhere. A lower EFC might seem more reasonable to families, but unless it was coupled with a big investment by colleges and/or the federal government, it would most likely leave more of them facing bigger gaps.

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