Article Highlights

  • Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is used to calculate financial aid. It is not necessarily how much your family will be expected to pay for college.
  • EFC is calculated through a specific formula. Online worksheets will guide you through calculating your family’s EFC.
  • Even if you don’t expect to need financial aid in college, or your EFC is full price, it can still be beneficial to fill out the FAFSA®, because it may unlock scholarship opportunities.

You may have heard that the so-called sticker price of a college isn’t what you’ll likely pay. According to EducationData.org, 83.8% of first-time, first-year undergrads receive some sort of financial aid in some form, and each student borrows an average of nearly $12,000 per year to attend school. Financial aid, including scholarships, can minimize how much tuition will cost families. But how much will you actually have to pay for college?

The answer: It depends. And one critical number to determine how much your family may be expected to pay is known as the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. You’ll see this phrase a lot, but it doesn’t necessarily mean what you think it means. The EFC is a number schools use to calculate how much financial aid you may be eligible to receive from that particular school. It is not the amount you will have to pay for college.

The EFC is calculated from the information you provide on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The calculation is based on a formula established by law. The formula considers many factors including, but not limited to, a family's income and assets, household size and the number of family members attending college.

Your financial need is calculated by subtracting the EFC from the college's Cost of Attendance (COA). The COA is determined by the school and is typically listed on the school's website. In general, the higher the cost of attendance, the greater your need will be.

COA - EFC = Need

How is EFC Calculated?

EFC is calculated through a specific formula. You can find a worksheet online to calculate your EFC. EFC may shift if you are an independent or dependent student or based on whether your parents are married or divorced, as well as the number of children within your family currently in college. Some of the factors considered in calculating EFC include:

  • Parent income
  • Parent assets
  • Student income
  • Student assets

There is no maximum EFC. It can range from $0 for families with high financial needs to the full cost of college attendance. That said, even if you anticipate that your family’s financial status will make you ineligible for financial aid, it still may be a good idea to fill out the FAFSA because doing so can unlock scholarship opportunities. The school will prepare a financial aid award letter outlining your eligible financial aid. You can expect to receive an award letter as early as February, and you should have all of them by April. Award Letter templates can vary, so carefully review each letter as you compare financial aid packages.

Remember: Your EFC is used to determine financial aid; it is not the amount you will necessarily be paying for tuition. That amount will be determined when you receive your financial aid award letter.

What happens if your EFC still feels like a financial stretch for your family? You have a few options. You may be able to appeal your financial aid award package, especially if your financial circumstances have changed. You could also start by expanding your scholarship search. You may also consider a less expensive school, or could start your college education at community college, save some money, and then transfer to a university. Or, you can apply for additional student loans to cover the remaining expenses.


FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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