Get answers to your most pressing questions on college costs and contributions.

We are trying to do some calculations so we can have an open discussion with our child about the cost of attending college. Tuition looks pretty high, so how can we determine how much federal student aid our student may be eligible to receive?

That is the ultimate question for any family that is considering college. Unfortunately, there are no simple answers. You can estimate the cost for various colleges, but you will not know the exact cost for each individual college until your student applies, completes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and receives a financial aid award letter.

How can we estimate the costs involved?

There are several resources you can use to start estimating costs. Each school is required to provide a net price calculator on their website that shows the average cost of attendance (COA) and the average amount of student aid received for students attending their institution. The Department of Education also has a free financial aid calculator, the FAFSA4caster, which gives you an early estimate of your eligibility for federal student aid. Keep in mind that your student may also be eligible for assistance from your state and individual grants from each college.

What makes up the Cost of Attendance (COA)?

The COA is the school’s estimate of what it costs the typical student to attend their institution. Costs may vary somewhat for your child, but they generally include tuition, fees, room and board, books, supplies, transportation, miscellaneous expenses.

Who makes the final decision on how much student aid will be awarded?

The financial aid department at each college is responsible for determining how much student aid each student will be awarded. Even though two schools may have the same tuition cost, your final cost could be different at each. Usually they start with the COA and subtract your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to determine the amount of your financial need. If the COA is low and your EFC is high, your student might not receive any assistance at all.

The details of your student aid package will be outlined in your award letter.

How do they calculate our Expected Family Contribution (EFC)?

Your EFC is calculated according to a formula established by law and is based on the financial information you provide on the FAFSA®. That financial information includes your family’s income, assets and benefits, as well as family size and the number of family members attending college.

What types of aid can each school award?

Schools may have access to federal student aid that is available in the form of grants, work-study, and federal student loans. Schools might also have endowments from which they can offer their own scholarships and grants to eligible students. Your total award package may include some or all of these types of aid. The details of your student aid package will be outlined in your award letter.

How else can we cut the costs of attending college?

A great and easy way to reduce your out-of-pocket college expenses it to have your student apply for as many scholarships as possible.

Once you have received all financial aid award packages from the schools your student has been accepted to, you can sit down together and compare college costs. There is not a standard award letter template for each school, but each letter will contain the same types of information: COA, EFC, grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans. Since your awards will likely vary from school to school, it’s important to compare carefully.


About the Author

Jodi Okun is founder and president of College Financial Aid Advisors and a Discover Student Loans brand ambassador. Visit her website at collegefinancialaidadvisors.com. She is also the About.com Money Expert on “Paying for College,” and was recently acknowledged as one of the “Top 30 Social Influencers in Personal Finance & Wealth.” She has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Mashable, US News & Education and The Huffington Post. The opinions expressed in this article are Jodi’s and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Discover Student Loans.

FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.