Planning for College and Your Expected Family Contribution

Planning for college gives families the opportunity to send young adults into the world on the best footing. Not only do these young work warriors learn technical skills to follow a career with a livable income, they also learn social skills by interacting with a new set of people. When not carried out properly, students and parents often see the end of academic careers with debt and no diploma. Creating a better understanding of how college funding works and the choices that are available help parents in the process of saving for, shopping for, and saving on the cost of college. This post will act as an introduction to saving on the cost of college, with a review of the family’s expected contribution.

First, let’s take a step back and look at the landscape as it exists today.

Google “student loan debt” and a barrage of articles and statistics fill your search results. As most families with college-bound students know, total student loan debt is well over $1 trillion. In fact, the most recent numbers show total student loan debt at $1.4 trillion (1.). In 33 out of the last 35 years, the cost of college has risen faster than the pace of inflation (as of October 2016) (2.)

The result has been an inflation rate of roughly 5% for the past 10 years. Compare this to the cost of college in Singapore over approximately the same time frame and you will see an inflation rate of 3.22% (3.) – more in line with what one would expect. Free tuition may also be available in countries such as Germany, which originally abolished tuition fees in 1971 (although it made a comeback from 2006-2014) (4.). Still, a free university education is not always as glamorous as it seems. For example, in Sweden, the government provides tuition to students, but students loans do pile up, with 85% of Swedish students graduating with debt (4.), though that debt does not compare to the growth or amount of debt US students incur.

Take a look at the cost of college and the median US household income.

Notice the growth rate of college costs and lack of growth in median family income.

Part of the American Dream is slipping farther away from parents wanting to see their children do better and from students wanting to experience a respectable standard of living. The math is simple; when the rate of change for college costs increases faster than incomes rise, more borrowing takes place, totaling $1.4 trillion.

New Trends

I hope we start waking up to the current realities and start looking at the picture with a different set of assumptions and planning techniques. The students who recently graduated or who will be graduating soon must start looking at student loans in the same way Boomers have started looking at Social Security to maximize lifetime income. However, instead of looking for ways to increase lifetime income, graduates and parents with student loans must find ways to reduce lifetime expenses.
Students in high school or middle school, and their parents, should closely examine ways to fund college. Start with the basics. (Click here for a timeline associated with the last two years of high school.)

First step

We must look at the larger, more basic formula for college as outlined below.

Cost of Attendance – Expected Family Contribution = Student Financial Need

Most families have this basic formula down. If you have a high school student, how many conversations have you had with him or her about the cost of in-state versus out-of-state tuition and public versus private university costs? Most families try to keep the cost of attendance down without focusing on other aid that may make more expensive universities competitive, in terms of cost, with public in-state institutions.
For example, if private university tuition is $50,000 and a public school costs $25,000, the easy choice (on the surface) is a public university. However, when private schools see that a student has significant financial needs, those schools will likely offer more scholarships, grants, discounts, and money to the student (assuming the college is seeking the student’s attendance).
Only 11% of private school students pay full price for their education (6.). Private universities spend $0.42 of every tuition dollar and revenue on scholarships and grants (6.). Recent years have shown record scholarships and grants issued from private universities.
In the end, the net cost to parents and students matter not the sticker price.

Learning how the formula works for a family’s expected contribution should be the second step.

What is the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC?

It seems easy to not worry about how to pay for college until the bill comes.

In simple terms, this number is the amount of money the government feels your family can reasonably contribute to funding a college education. The formula, while more complicated, is listed below:

(Parent Income + Parent Assets)/# of Children in College + Student Income + Student Assets = EFC

Parent Income – Between 0-47% of total income may be expected minus all taxes and allowances.

Parent Assets – Up to 5.6% of qualifying assets may be counted, such as brokerage accounts, college savings, and savings accounts. Assets such as the family home, retirement plans, and an asset protection allowance do not affect the EFC calculation.

Number of Children in College – If you have more than one child in college, your Student Financial Need changes because assets will cover multiple individuals.

Student Income – 50% of income over the protection allowance counts toward the family’s EFC.

Student Assets – 20% of all assets, including custodial accounts and savings accounts. As with parents’ assets, the EFC calculation ignores family homes and retirement plans. As mentioned before, students also get an income protection allowance.
(Stay tuned for another blog post discussing income protection allowances.)

Now what?

As you can see from the formula, simplicity quickly gets lost and families start ignoring the EFC part of the college funding formula. Here are the next steps for parents and students.


1. Starting when your child is in middle school, project your income through high school and college to better understand cash flow and to examine ideal accounts to save college funds.
2. If you own a small business for which your student works, create a plan early for the student’s income to avoid a higher EFC.
3. Create a plan for the gifting of assets to the student while he or she is in college, or a few years before college. Remember that up to 20% of a child’s assets count for the EFC and that only 5.64% may be expected for a parent’s qualified assets. If Grandma and Grandpa gift stock to the kids, you may want to rethink this for a while, or Grandma and Grandpa may want to gift the stock to Mom and Dad instead. (Watch out for the annual gift exclusion amount. Talk to your tax advisor for specifics about your situation.)


1. If you work, project your income over the next few years before and while you’re in college. You may end up working more your sophomore year versus your junior and senior years. This accomplishes two items: A.) It gives you a longer timeframe for your money to compound, and B.) Because prior-year tax returns are used, a lower income will be reported on the FAFSA.
2. Be careful about receiving gifted assets. See #3 under “parents.”
3. As you plan for college, closely examine whether you will be a better candidate for merit-based or needs-based scholarships and grants.

As always, if you have any questions, use the “contact us” page to let us know what is on your mind or contact us at 317-805-0840.


1. “U.S. Student Loan Debt Statistics for 2017.” Student Loan Hero. N.p., 11 July 2017. Web. 01 Aug. 2017.
2. Clark, Kim. “College Costs Hit Record High in 2016 | Money.” Time. Time, 26 Oct. 2016. Web. 01 Aug. 2017. <>.
3. “College Access and Affordability: USA vs. the World.” Value Colleges. N.p., 01 Nov. 2016. Web. 01 Aug. 2017. <>.
4. Mithcell, Michael, and Michael Leachman. “Years of Cuts Threaten to Put College Out of Reach for More Students.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. N.p., 29 July 2015. Web. 01 Aug. 2017. <>.

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