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If you want to be considered for Federal financial assistance, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The quickest way to do this is online at: The FAFSA can be filed no earlier than January 1st of the year you will be attending. However, the FAFSA may not be the only form you will need to submit. Incoming freshman may also need to complete the CSS Profile Application. Many Private colleges require the profile. Why? Well, it gives financial aid administrators a broader set of data from which to derive your eligibility for institutional need-based assistance.

You also complete the Profile much earlier than the FAFSA and many schools will provide a financial aid package earlier than would be possible if you wait to complete the FAFSA. Check with you college to see if you are required to complete the Profile. Generally, the Profile application becomes available in the middle of October. You can register and apply online at: Colleges use the processed data to determine your eligibility for financial aid. Whether you complete the FAFSA or the Profile, the Expected Family Contribution arrived at by putting your household, demographic and financial data through a formula is the basis for determining your award. The data you submit on the FAFSA goes to a place called CPS (Central Processing System) where it is compiled and then a formula is applied.

The formula the Department of Education uses to compute your EFC is called Federal Methodology. If you'd like to learn exactly how the data is treated you can request a copy (for free) of The EFC Formula Book by calling 1-800-4FED-AID. Ask for The EFC Formula Book by academic year (ex. "I would like a copy of The EFC Formula Book for the current academic year.") The EFC is basically what the government is telling us how much you should be able to contribute toward education based on your state of residence, household size, number in college and student and parent income and asset information.

Next, the school you attend establishes a Cost of Attendance (COA). The COA is composed of tuition, room and board, fees and estimated expenses (books, supplies, personal). The EFC and COA are used to determine your financial need. Financial need is calculated by subtracting the EFC from the COA and is a guideline in determining how much need based financial aid you may receive. The equation looks like this: COA - EFC = Financial Need The aid office then uses the "need based" resources they have available to try to "meet" your financial need. EXAMPLE Sally files her FAFSA and a few weeks later receives her Student Aid Report (SAR). She notes that the EFC on the SAR is "01200". Her school has a COA of $18,000. So, using the formula above we find that Sally's need is $16,800. The financial aid office then uses this information to construct a financial aid package.

For example, the college offers the following: $5,000 Institutional Grant $1,550 Federal Pell Grant $1,000 Federal SEOG $3,500 Federal Subsidized Stafford Loan $1,000 Federal Perkins Loan $1,600 Federal Work Study Total aid: $13,650 What this tells us is that if Sally's need for financial aid is $16,800, the financial aid office was only able to meet $13,650 of that. The difference between the two is called unmet need. In this case, Sally's unmet financial need is $3,250. What that means to Sally is that she will have to contribute more than her EFC in order to meet her educational costs. Unmet need is a common occurrence in financial aid packages.

The school is under no obligation to meet your need for financial aid and, in many cases, is simply unable to do so given the types and amounts of funding at their disposal. What the financial aid office does, to the best of its ability, is to meet as much of your need with the resources it has available. Those resources may include scholarships, grants, loans, and work. Finally, let's see what else you need to keep in mind!