At this point many families have already filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This is the first step in applying for need-based financial aid for college. The information provided on the FAFSA (or CSS Profile) will produce the student’s expected family contribution, better known as “EFC.”

How is the figure calculated and why is it such an important part of a sound college planning strategy? Let’s take a closer look.

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Proactive College Planning and the EFC — What You Need to Know. This is the first step in applying for need-based financial aid for college. The information provided on the FAFSA (or CSS Profile) will produce the student’s expected family contribution, better known as “EFC”.

What Is Your EFC?

EFC is the minimum dollar amount that a student is expected to contribute toward the cost of college. Since aid applications are submitted every year, a new EFC will be generated for each year of school.

That amount is used to determine the student’s eligibility for need-based financial aid and is simply subtracted from the cost of attendance, the end result is the “financial need” of the student (Cost of Attendance – EFC = Financial Need).

The information used to determine a student’s EFC is provided on one of two aid applications, the FAFSA or CSS Profile. All colleges require the FAFSA, but some also require the CSS to determine eligibility for their own institutional aid.

The information is then processed using one of three aid calculations. The FAFSA uses the Federal Methodology, while the CSS uses either the Institutional or Consensus Methodology. The results are sent to the student and college financial aid departments that the student has selected on their applications.

How Is It Calculated?

The EFC formula focuses on the assets and income of the student and parents, the size of the family, and number of children in college each year. Each aid calculation (Federal, Institutional, and Consensus) is different, which is why it’s important to understand which college uses which calculation before applying.

The exact same asset and income information could produce a substantially different EFC when calculated by two schools.

Aid formulas expect parents to contribute up to 47 percent of their income after a modest allowance and taxes are deducted. Students are expected to contribute 50 percent.  Parent assets are assessed at up to 5.64 percent and students up to 25 percent.

Parents receive a savings allowance, but students do not.  Retirement assets are not counted in any of the aid calculations and assets such as home equity, annuities, and small businesses are weighed differently based on the type of aid methodology being used.

How to Plan

Understanding your child’s EFC will provide insight into your aid eligibility, determine the affordability of the school, and help with potential planning strategies. For example, if the EFC based on parental income alone is higher than the cost of college, then the student will not qualify for need-based aid.

At that point the repositioning of assets would be useless as it would not impact aid eligibility. The focus then should shift to merit aid, tax aid, and the best use of your personal resources.

If your income-only EFC is lower than the cost of college, then there is the potential to reposition assets and increase need-based aid.  However, before selling assets you should examine the tax consequences, the impact on financial aid in the following year, and the impact on your other goals such as retirement.

Remember, even if you qualify for need-based aid, it does not mean you are going to get all of it. If a college really wants your child, for whatever reason, it probably will meet a higher percentage of that need and meet it with grant and scholarship money instead of student loans.

You will still need to determine the best way to pay your share of the cost, be it from current cash flow, assets, or loans.

College tuition will be the single greatest investment for most families. Failing to plan for it could result in your children being laden with enormous student loan debt and jeopardize your retirement goals. Be proactive!

Understanding what colleges will expect you to contribute toward your child’s education is a great start. From there you can incorporate tax strategies, financial aid optimization, and the best use of your personal resources into one comprehensive plan — a plan that should help you pay for college as wisely as possible and protect your assets and income for retirement.