What the heck is an EFC and why should I care when it comes to college? Simply stated, the EFC is the Expected Family Contribution, which tells the college the minimum amount you should be able to pay for college. It is clear that the Feds have not kept up with the economic times since the EFC, for most people, is almost always more than families can realistically afford.

So why does knowing your EFC matter? By knowing your EFC before beginning the college search, you can estimate what kind of college you may be able to afford. Since all colleges are not created equal when awarding financial aid, this can become very important.

First of all, let’s walk you through figuring out your EFC. Google “College Board Big Future EFC Calculator”(bigfuture.collegeboard.org/pay-for-college/paying-your-share/expected-family-contribution-calculator). Follow the steps provided. Although this is a very rough estimate, it will put you in the ballpark.

Once you know your EFC, you can calculate your approximate cost for each college. To do this, take the Cost of Attendance (COA) of the school (that includes everything including tuition, room and board, transportation, personal expenses, etc). Each college has estimated that amount. Subtract your EFC from the COA and it will give you an estimated “need.” Depending on how generous the school is, it will provide you with some percent of your need. Once again, you can find this info on the Big Future website. If you want a more detailed estimate, each college will have a “Net Price Calculator” that is specific to that school. Some of the calculators are good and some are not so good, but either way, you can get an estimate of how much college will cost.

Once again we ask, “Why does this matter?”

A: If your EFC is $10,000 and the COA is $55,000, you will have a financial need of about $45,000. This can be awarded as grants and/or loans.
B: If your EFC is $50,000, your financial need will only be $5,000. You won’t get much help here.

For student A, it would make sense to apply to the school that costs $55,000. For student B, it might not. It should also be noted that colleges do not typically meet 100 percent of your need and some are more generous than others.

Lastly, if your EFC is high, it does not mean you will not receive any financial aid. Many private colleges are very generous with merit aid, which is based on the student’s qualifications, and not family income and assets. To get merit aid, the student should have great grades, top ACT or SAT scores, and be involved in some meaningful activities. And remember that top scores at Stanford are not the same as top scores at most other schools. So shop around. Know your EFC. You wouldn’t walk onto a car lot and choose a car without knowing what you will have to pay for it. So don’t pick a college without any idea how much it will cost.