FAFSA says how much you can pay for college. This is often wrong.

But it also generates their expected family contribution, or EFC – a figure that can easily be misleading. This is often higher than what many households can afford, and yet in many cases, like that of the Phipps family, it is still not enough.

“For a long time, there has been this growing gap between the formula for analyzing needs and accurately reflecting the ability of a student and their family to pay for college,” said Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Administrators of Student Financial Aid, which has members from nearly 3,000 schools.

The gap widened not only because of the exponential rise in college prices, but also because of the CFE formula himself. The formula, which spans 36 pages, often assumes that families have a much higher income to pay for their college education than they actually do, financial aid experts said, especially in high-cost areas. The reason lies in its basic assumptions: that a family of four, for example, can live on less than $ 30,000, no matter where they live.

“Students have a lot more needs than we recognize,” said Eddy Conroy, deputy director of the Hope Center for Community, College and Justice at Temple University. “But the system doesn’t really catch that correctly.”

Colleges use the CEF to determine a student’s financial need – the difference between the cost of attending college and the expected contribution from the family. Then the schools offer financial assistance. (About 400 schools and programs, mostly private colleges, also use another formula, known as the CSS Profile, to determine institutional aid, according to the College Board, which created the calculation.)

But unless a student attends a college that promises to meet 100% of their needs – and the vast majority don’t – students and their families are likely to pay more than the FAFSA estimates.


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