How to Get the Most Financial Aid

Find out your EFC, fill out the FAFSA form and earn cash for college

Fill out the FAFSA correctly to get the most federal financial aid for college.

Teresa Frye was uninitiated in the ways of the FAFSA. Her older son, Nicholas, was applying for college when she blithely began to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form. It didn’t take her long to realize that the path to securing financial aid is paved with roadblocks and misconceptions.

“Completing the FAFSA can be complicated,” recalls the Voorhees, NJ mom. “There are 130 or so questions, and some are not in layman’s terms. I did not know what figures to provide, so I had to ask my accountant. It was a rude awakening to discover what the government thinks a family can contribute to a college education.” (See how to discover that figure below.)

Expected Family Contribution Formula

The following formula lets families know the maximum amount of financial aid for which they are eligible before they complete the FAFSA.

Cost of attendance – expected family contribution = financial need

“Cost of attendance” includes tuition, room, board, books, living expenses and transportation. “Expected family contribution” (EFC) takes into account the income and assets of both parent and student, parent age and the number of children in college and at home.

Find EFC calculators at the following sites: Big Future by the College Board,, Federal Student Aid and

Navigating her way through the confounding process, Frye was surprised to discover that her sons received more financial aid from out-of-state colleges than from those in New Jersey. Nicholas, now 20, attends the Georgia Institute of Technology, and Christopher, 18, goes to the University of Pittsburgh, schools that offered them institutional scholarships and grants. The boys also took out federal loans to round out their aid packages.

The FAFSA form

“Some families are afraid if they apply for financial aid, the school will hold it against them at admissions,” says James Holloway, compliance manager for the University of Delaware Student Financial Services Division. That is not the case.

Find more evergreen FAFSA fill-out tips here.

The first step in applying for aid is tackling the FAFSA. “The form is written as if it’s being filled out by the student, so when it says ‘you’ it needs to be answered from the student’s perspective,” explains Holloway.

The FAFSA deadline for fall 2014 matriculation is March 1, 2014. Complete the form as early as possible and with great care.

The figures reported on your child’s FAFSA must be identical to those on your federal income tax return. Simple errors such as an incorrect social security number or leaving a question blank can cause the form to be kicked out of the system, setting you back a good six to eight weeks, says Barry Sysler, certified educational planner for Academic Directions in Langhorne, PA. Given that financial aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, any delay can be costly.

Financial Aid Facts

The FAFSA looks at the income and assets of the student and any parent living under one roof, an important distinction in a divorced household. “People report the income and assets of the parent who’s no longer living in the household, and that’s a mistake,” asserts Sysler. 

Another mistake? “Many families make an assumption that they make too much money and don’t qualify for financial aid,” Sysler says. “But every single student who attends college can get a [federal] Stafford loan.”

A final misconception is in thinking that by putting money aside in a child’s name, the parent will have fewer assets and therefore be eligible for more aid. “Every dollar in a student’s name is assessed at 20 percent in terms of raising the family’s expected contributions,” says Sysler. “If that same principal is in the parent’s name, it’s assessed at 5.6 percent.”

College scholarship aid

Beyond the FAFSA, aid in the form of scholarships shouldn’t be overlooked. 

“Make your child’s college application stand out — what I call a ‘purple cow,’ ” says Sysler. “The easiest way to do that is by having a high academic profile, but you can have talent in the form of sports prowess, music, art, theater or dance.”

Geographic, ethnic and religious diversity can also be attractive. For example, if your child applies to a college in a region where there are few students from your state, he may be offered a scholarship. 

Other than what a college offers, additional funding sources based on academics, athletics, leadership, community service or the company a parent works for may be available. The Internet is a treasure trove of information in this regard. Eastern Regional High School, where the Frye brothers attended, makes a list of potential scholarships and application criteria available to its students via a site called Holloway is a fan of, a website that gives financial aid advice and links to several scholarship-search databases, including the Fast Web Scholarship Search. Other free scholarship sites include, and

Terri Akman is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

Categories: Money, Secondary Education