Like many families, you have questions about how much college will cost and how much financial aid you will get even before you child starts applying.

Fortunately, there are tools to help you estimate the college cost and financial aid. Keep in mind, you will not know the exact cost or financial aid for each college until your child applies, completes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and receives a financial aid award letter, but you can at least get a good idea to help you plan.

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 child 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 and miscellaneous expenses. The College Board also publishes average tuition and fees and room and board by college type. And each school publishes their sticker price, but that could be misleading since most people do not pay it.

Who decides how much student aid my child will get?

The financial aid department at each college uses the information you provided on the FAFSA to determine how much student aid each student will be given. Even though two schools may have the same tuition cost, your final cost could be different at each because schools receive different amounts of financial aid to distribute. Usually they start with the COA and subtract your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) to determine the amount of your financial need.

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. The EFC is not the amount of money your family is expected to pay — it is a guide to help schools calculate your financial aid eligibility.

What types of aid can each school give out?

Federal student aid includes grants, scholarships, work-study, and federal student loans. Schools may also have institutional scholarships and grants for eligible students, and there could be state aid available. Your total financial aid award package may include some or all of these types of aid.

How 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. Use this free tool to help compare the letters side by side so you can make the best decision for your family.


About the Author

Jodi Okun is founder and president of College Financial Aid Advisors. She is also the About.com Money Expert on “Paying for College,” and 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 US Department of Education.