How Aid is Calculated | Federal Student Aid

Wondering how the amount of your federal student aid is determined?

The colleges or career schools you list on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) will use several pieces of information to calculate your aid.

How Aid is Calculated

So, you’ve filed your FAFSA®, and you’ve checked your Student Aid Report to be sure all your information is correct, and now you’re wondering how that data is used to come up with the list of financial aid for which you’re eligible. 

If I meet the basic eligibility criteria for federal student aid, who decides how much money I’ll get?
What does cost of attendance (COA) mean?
What’s the Expected Family Contribution (EFC)?
What is need-based aid and how does my school figure out how much I’ll get?
What is non-need-based aid and how does my school figure out how much I’ll get?


If I meet the basic eligibility criteria for federal student aid, who decides how much money I’ll get?

Here’s the short answer:

Your eligibility depends on your Expected Family Contribution, your year in school, your enrollment status, and the cost of attendance at the school you will be attending. The financial aid office at your college or career school will determine how much financial aid you are eligible to receive.

If you’d like the long answer, keep reading!

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What does cost of attendance (COA) mean?

Your COA is the amount it will cost you to go to school. Most two-year and four-year colleges will calculate your COA to show your total cost for the school year (for instance, for the fall semester plus the spring semester). Schools with programs that last a different period of time (for instance, an 18-month certificate program) might give you a COA that covers a time period other than a year.

If you're attending at least half-time, your COA is the estimate of

  • tuition and fees;
  • the cost of room and board (or living expenses for students who do not contract with the school for room and board); 
  • the cost of books, supplies, transportation, loan fees, and miscellaneous expenses (including a reasonable amount for the documented cost of a personal computer);
  • an allowance for child care or other dependent care;
  • costs related to a disability; and/or
  • reasonable costs for eligible study-abroad programs.

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What’s the Expected Family Contribution (EFC)?

Your EFC is an index number that college financial aid staff use to determine how much financial aid you would receive if you were to attend their school. The information you report on your FAFSA is used to calculate your EFC.

The EFC is calculated according to a formula established by law. Your family's taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security) all could be considered in the formula. Also considered are your family size and the number of family members who will attend college or career school during the year. The EFC Formula guide shows exactly how an EFC is calculated.

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Overhead view of college library computer lab

Your EFC is not the amount of money your family will have to pay for college, nor is it the amount of federal student aid you will receive. It is a number used by your school to calculate how much financial aid you are eligible to receive.


What is need-based aid and how does my school figure out how much I’ll get?

Your college or career school first determines whether you have financial need by using this simple formula:

Calculating Your Financial Need

   Cost of Attendance (COA)

– Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

= Financial Need

Need-based aid is financial aid that you can receive if you have financial need and meet other eligibility criteria. You can’t receive more need-based aid than the amount of your financial need. For instance, if your COA is $6,000 and your EFC is 2000, your financial need is $4,000; so you aren’t eligible for more than $4,000 in need-based aid.

The following are the need-based federal student aid programs:

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What is non-need-based aid and how does my school figure out how much I’ll get?

Your school determines how much non-need-based aid you can get by using this formula:

Calculating Your Non-need-based Aid

   Cost of Attendance (COA)

– Financial Aid Awarded So Far*

= Eligibility for Non-need-based Aid

  *includes aid from all sources, such as the school, private scholarship providers, etc.

Non-need-based aid is financial aid that is not based on your EFC. What matters is your COA and how much other assistance you’ve been awarded so far. For instance, if your COA is $6,000 and you’ve been awarded a total of $4,000 in need-based aid and private scholarships, you can get up to $2,000 in non-need-based aid.

The following are the non-need-based federal student aid programs:

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