College Finances: Words of Confusion!

Have you ever watched the Presidential Press Secretary giving a press briefing?  It is quite amazing.  No matter your political affiliation or lack of affiliation, if you watch the press secretary during a briefing, you can see that there is as much not being said as there is being said.  There is a delicate dance of words happening.  Of course there are many things that they can’t say, there are some things they need to say, and there is the delicate ground in between that often leads to confusion.  This delicate dance of words is found in many areas of life.   So it should not surprise you if it is found in college finances.  Here are a few of those college “Words of confusion” that need greater clarification.

Words of Confusion: Cost of Attendance (COA)

The COA is one of the most important figures to know with planning for college.  You can research online to find the expected COA of any college.   You will also find the COA in your financial award letter.  The confusing part of the COA is just what is included in this calculation.  For instance, there may be travel costs that can vary from location to location, and there are book costs can vary greatly depending upon the vendor one uses.   Even simple things such as living expenses and room set-up supplies all can make the COA a bit confusing.  It is important for you to have a great understanding of your specific COA in order to make proper financial decisions.

Words of Confusion: Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

Another common phrase that falls into the “Words of Confusion” category is the EFC.  There are many formularies available to figure out your family’s EFC.  What makes this confusing is that people believe that their EFC is the most they will have to pay for their yearly college expense.  This is not the case.  The EFC is actually the least you will have to pay for your yearly college expense.   A “need” may still exist between the COA and the EFC.  That leads to our final “Words of Confusion” phrase.

Words of Confusion: Financial Need

Let’s define the financial need.  Simply stated, the financial need is the COA minus the EFC.  Let’s say the college you want to attend has a COA of  $35,000.00, and your EFC is $17,000.00.  This would leave you with a financial need of $18,000.00.  Simple right!  Colleges want to make sure each student can attend their college,  so they strive to meet as much of this need as possible through scholarships, grants and loans .  The family and student will find this in their financial award letters.  But a growing trend in college is to say that they meet 100% of the financial need.  And herein lies the confusion.

In a recent US News and World Report article, Farran Powel, notes:

“Financial awards from colleges and universities use a combination of loans, scholarships, grants and work-study to cover the gap between the total cost of attendance and the amount a family is expected to pay. A school that claims to meet 100 percent covers the gap entirely.”

In fact they go on to list a number of colleges meeting the entire financial need in this way.  This may sound simple, but “meeting the need” by a loan is really confusing.  A loan will have to be paid by the student and/or parent.  This loan may be a federal loan, PLUS Loan, or even a state loan.  This is a delicate dance of words that you need to understand in order to craft a better financial plan for your college needs.

These words can be confusing, but they are important to understand before you make a financial plan.  The student and parent will need to look over each part of the financial award letter to see just how your financial need is being met.