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Don Betterton

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  • Director of Financial Aid, Princeton University (1973-2006)
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Seamus Malin

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The 16 Things You Should Know (or Do) Junior Year in High School - Financial Aid for College

Don Betterton -

college admissions expert advice from eprep.comFinancial Aid for College: Junior Year


1. If you think you will need financial assistance to attend college, you should turn your attention to aid matters no later than midway through junior year.

By junior year, you should have a list of colleges, any one of which you would be happy to attend. Each of the colleges on your list should have characteristics that appear to match your personal preferences and academic abilities. If you have not yet drafted a preliminary college list, you should research colleges and do so before tackling financial aid matters.

2. Once you have organized a college list in accordance with your personal preferences and academic abilities, start collecting financial aid information.

Call or visit the website of each college on your list in order to obtain the school’s estimated total cost of attendance. This figure is commonly referred to as the Cost of Attendance, or COA. The COA includes tuition, room, board (meals), books, personal expenses, and travel. Inflate the COA for each college by 5% for each year until the year you will enroll. Once you have done so, add the COA numbers, as appropriate, to the other information you have collected regarding the colleges on your list.

3. Check with the colleges on your list to see which financial aid applications they require.

Most college websites have Admission and Financial Aid sections that are designed to assist visitors who are interested in learning about how to apply for financial aid. If the website of a particular college does not specify the financial aid application required, call the school to inquire. As you begin your research, it is useful to note that all colleges require the federal aid form, commonly known as the FAFSA, and that some colleges require additional financial aid forms. In fact, many private colleges will request that you complete the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which you can learn more about on The College Board’s website (

4. Estimate whether you will qualify for need-based aid at each of the colleges on your list.

In the 2005-06 academic year, about 77% of the $61 billion doled out by colleges in the form of need-based or “gift” awards was based on the ability (or lack thereof) of families to pay college costs. Thus, it is advisable to determine whether you and your family will qualify for such funding when the time comes for you to enroll in college.

5. To determine whether you are likely to qualify for need-based aid, use one of the many free web-based estimators to determine your Expected Family Contribution.

Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is the amount of money that colleges will expect you and your family to contribute toward your annual Cost of Attendance (COA). Note that the EFC calculation considers the financial resources of both parents and students. EFC estimators are available at free websites like,, and

6. You should obtain an EFC estimate during the winter/spring of junior year.

Winter/spring of junior year is a good time to obtain an EFC estimate because the calendar year that starts when you are halfway through your junior in high school is the same calendar year that will be used to calculate your EFC when you apply for aid for your freshman year in college. Thus, the EFC estimate obtained during the winter/spring of your junior year should be a reasonably accurate one.

7. Enter your family financial information in one of the free web-based estimators to obtain your EFC estimate.

Once you have obtained an EFC estimate, record it someplace on your college list.

Note: If a college on your list requires the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE application in addition to the FAFSA, you will have to run two estimators, one for the federal need system and one for the PROFILE’s institutional system. The websites mentioned in Paragraph 6 above provide access to both estimators.

Once you have run the estimator(s), as appropriate, record the federal EFC (and the PROFILE EFC, if it is different) alongside the Cost of Attendance for each of the colleges on your list.

8. For each college on your list, subtract the EFC(s) from the Cost of Attendance to determine whether you are likely to qualify for need-based aid in the event you ultimately enroll in such college.

COA — EFC = need-based award estimate

If the EFC is significantly higher than the COA (i.e., you get a negative answer), write “FA unlikely” next to the college name.

If the EFC is close to the COA — either slightly higher or lower (i.e., you get an answer close to zero) — write “FA maybe” next to the college name.

If the EFC is significantly less than the COA (i.e., you get an answer that is positive and well above zero), write “FA likely” next to the college name.

This will be your shorthand for noting the likelihood of qualifying for need-based financial aid at each of the colleges on your list.

Note: The EFC estimate (whether federal or institutional) does not change based on the cost of attending the various colleges on your list. (In other words, EFC and COA are independent variables.) Depending on the diversity of colleges on your list, it is very likely that your calculations will indicate that you are likely to receive need-based aid at some schools but not others. To confuse matters even more, your calculations may indicate that, in some cases, you have federal need but not institutional need at the same college. Unfortunately, this is the way the system works. That’s why it is so important to get organized and stay organized.

9. You are not likely to receive need-based aid at any of the colleges on your list that carry the notation “FA unlikely.” Before you give up hope, however, you should continue reading this Paragraph 9. When you have finished, read Paragraph 10 as well.

Even if you have determined that you are not likely to receive need-based financial aid at all or some of the colleges on your list, you may qualify for financial assistance in the way of merit-based awards or scholarships at some or all of the colleges on your list. (In the very near future, ePrep will be posting an informational blog on merit-based awards. Stay tuned.)

10. Your junior-year, need-based aid award estimates are not set in stone; they are estimates.

Remember, your need-based award estimates depend on two variables — the Cost of Attendance and the Estimated Family Contribution. If you make changes to your college list by including schools with higher costs of attendance, for example, you may qualify for need-based awards in the event you ultimately enroll in one of such higher-priced institutions. Likewise, if your family’s financial situation changes (through decreased income, increased expenses, or both) by the time you actually apply for financial aid during your senior year in high school, the expected family contribution estimators may yield lower numbers. This may in-turn change your need-based award status.

Note: If your family’s financial situation changes significantly anytime after you apply for aid, you should consult with aid counselors at the colleges you are seriously considering and to which you are likely to be admitted. If a college makes an allowance for your “special” or “changed” financial circumstances, you may move from “FA unlikely” to the “FA maybe” or “FA likely” category.

11. The next step is to learn more about the specific financial aid policies at each of the “FA likely” or “FA maybe” colleges on your list.

Acquire and read the financial aid material for each college with either the “FA likely” or “FA maybe” designation. Make notes for yourself that include things like which applications are required, when they are due, and whether there are scholarships that require a separate application.

Careful reading may also uncover other important facts about a given college’s aid program. For example, a college may mention the percent of need that it typically meets or whether it considers the value of the family home in its aid calculations. A college’s “internal” aid policies can affect your EFC in a major way.

12. Visit college campuses during the spring of junior year and the summer before senior year. (Visiting campuses during the fall of senior year is acceptable as well.) It is recommended that during visits to colleges that have the “FA likely” or “FA maybe” designation, you should make an effort to visit the financial aid office in person.

Before any campus visits, rerun the estimator(s) with current income and savings. Also check to make sure you have the latest college costs when you subtract the EFC from the COA to determine your need-based award estimate. If necessary and as appropriate, revise the prior “FA unlikely,” “FA likely” or “FA maybe” designations on your list. Call the aid office and ask for an appointment with an aid counselor. (If you are unable to schedule an in-person meeting, don’t worry. The following steps can be completed over the phone or via email.)

13. The purpose of the visit is to help make you a truly well-educated financial aid consumer. While your knowledge of terms like EFC and COA and your careful research into the aid policies of specific colleges already make you an above average consumer, it is recommended that you take things a step further.

An in-person conversation with an aid counselor at a particular college is likely to give you helpful insights on how the aid policies of that college match up with your family’s unique financial situation. If you have to, skip the campus tour. In the long run, time spent in the aid office will be much more valuable than time spent learning more about a college’s buildings and traditions. Besides, most colleges offer video tours on their websites.

14. Bring copies of all documents that verify the data you used when running the web-based estimator, and the resulting EFC, to each and every in-person meeting with an aid counselor. You may also want to bring with you copies of any other documents that shed light on your particular financial situation.

During your in-person meeting, show the counselor your current EFC estimate and any supporting documentation. Then ask whether (assuming no change in your financial situation prior to senior year when you submit your data on the actual FAFSA and PROFILE, as appropriate) it is reasonable for you to assume that the college’s calculation will be substantially similar to your current EFC estimate. Many colleges, especially private schools, have their own set of aid policies that they use to adjust standard EFC calculations. The counselor should offer to explain any and all policies that may affect your current calculation.

If you have special circumstances that were not factored into your web-based EFC estimate, explain them and ask if they can be considered. For example, will the aid office consider family resources that are allocated, annually, to help pay the nursing home expenses of your grandparents?

15. After you have gotten a better sense of what your actual EFC might be at a particular college, ask about how the college might meet your financial need. (Remember, COA — EFC = financial need.) In other words, ask about the likely combination of scholarship/grant, student loan, and work-study?

In financial-aid terms, the determination of the composition of an award is called “packaging.” The first thing you want to know about a college’s packaging policy is what percent of your demonstrated need the college will meet with aid.

You should realize that if a college does not meet 100% of your financial need, you will be responsible for the amount of the shortfall (called the “gap”) between your calculated aid eligibility and the amount you actually receive. In other words, you will be responsible for contributing both your calculated EFC and the gap. This is a very important concept to understand. While it may not seem fair, it’s simply the way the system works. Again, this is a very important concept and you should discuss it with an aid counselor as necessary.

Remember, during junior year (before senior year when admission and aid applications are due), you are merely attempting to get an idea of what your bottom line financial responsibility will be. This may be important because, again, if the colleges on your list are colleges that will not meet your full need, you will ultimately have to contribute sums greater than the Estimated Family Contribution. Since there are only about 75 colleges out of the roughly 2,000 four-year institutions in the United States that will meet 100% of the need of all qualified applicants, you will likely be responsible for more that just the EFC; you will have to contribute an amount equal to the “gap” as well.

The next part of the packaging discussion centers around how much of your need-based award is likely to be met with gift aid (i.e., scholarship or grant) and how much will you likely be required to meet through student loans and a work-study job. Obviously, the larger the amount of scholarship and/or grant money awarded, the better the package.

As you go through this process with various colleges, you should understand that you are not likely to get exact answers to all of your questions. Don’t worry. Even if some of the answers are vague, you will slowly but surely become a more educated financial aid consumer. After getting through just a few aid-counselor interviews, you will know tons more about how the aid system works than you did when you got started. This knowledge will be of considerable value as the admission process gets underway in earnest during senior year.

16. When you have gone through the procedure outlined above for each of the colleges on your list (whether in-person, by phone or by email), sit down at home and sort out where you stand in relation to paying the yearly costs of college.

With a general idea of your financial “bottom line” for each college, evaluate which of the colleges are affordable. Understand that affordability in this sense means more than simply determining whether paying for college is within your monthly budget.

A college can be affordable if, by any reasonable means, you can come up with your bottom line expectation. This includes adjusting current spending habits, drawing down on savings, taking out a parental loan, having the student borrow more or earn more from a job, receiving assistance from relatives, and so forth.

Based on your assessment of which colleges are affordable, your college list may have to be adjusted. Similar to the admission side where the college list typically includes “safety,” “match,” and “reach” schools, there should be an ordering of colleges based on affordability.

Ideally, a college list that considers paying issues will include 1 or 2 colleges that are not a financial problem, 3 or 4 that aid will make possible, and 1 or 2 that might really be worth the stretch.

If, rather than follow the above advice, you push financial matters into the background and enter the aid process with little knowledge about how it might work for you, you risk encountering major financial problems somewhere along the way. The money crunch may show up early — by not being able to attend a first choice college — or later, after enrollment when the tuition bill cannot be paid and the student must leave school. With a combination of good financial planning and a desire to make it work, any college can become affordable.

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