Families of college-bound students are always looking for strategies to manage their Expected Family Contribution, and I’m happy to oblige. However, lowering your EFC is no guarantee of getting financial aid. And that’s why net cost is important.

Your EFC is what the federal needs analysis methodology says is the amount you can spend on college. You can estimate it here. You can also estimate your EFC for the CSS Profile here, although remember that colleges can treat elements of the formula differently.

Neither of these calculations obligates a college to offer you a financial aid package of any sort other than a Pell Grant if you are eligible for that. And that’s why net price calculators are at least as important– if not more important– than your EFC.

Every college that is part of the federal financial aid system– meaning, every college at which you can take out a direct student loan to pay college costs– is required to have a net price calculator on its website. By entering your data– financial and sometimes academic, depending on the college– you can see what students like you paid to go to that college the previous year. Net price calculators are not foolproof, and likewise they do not obligate the institution to offer you the aid indicated by the net price calculator, but they are very good proxies for what you could expect. For example, my kids’ actual aid awards were all within $2,000 of what the various net price calculators estimated.

Net price calculators can show you whether a college meets financial need. The calculators can only show grant and scholarship aid, not loans or work-study, though many will indicate whether the student is likely to be eligible for a subsidized loan or work-study. Net price calculators don’t include every possible award, so it’s always a good idea to check the school’s financial and and scholarship website to see if there are other scholarships you would be eligible for.

Given the cost and effort involved in applying to a college, you should only apply to schools that you might attend. Do the net price calculator and check the financial aid website. If there isn’t a clear path to affordability, cross the school off your list. There are loads of other good choices out there, and for virtually every student there is a college that will be generous with scholarships. It just takes some looking. (To that point, my College Financial Plan masterclass has multiple instructional videos and detailed worksheets on researching colleges and finding merit scholarships.)

Here’s where knowing and managing your EFC is helpful:

  • Calculating it will help you to determine whether you’re a candidate for need-based aid at any of the colleges you’re considering.
  • A (small) number of schools meet 100% of demonstrated need, as calculated by the FAFSA or CSS Profile. If you are applying to any such schools, anything you do to reduce your EFC will result in more financial aid.

Here are a few situations where EFC is not helpful:

  • Families whose incomes are highly variable from year to year. Income is the biggest element on the FAFSA, and if yours is higher in your second year, all your first-year planning could go out the window.
  • Families who don’t check the financial aid policies at the colleges they’re applying to. If you do a great job of lowering your EFC and then apply to out-of-state public colleges and others that don’t meet need, your work was for nothing.
  • Colleges that only offer merit aid.

I’m not trying to discourage you from doing everything you can to lower your EFC. I just want to be sure you understand the limitations of doing so– now, while you still have time to find good fit colleges to apply to.

Want to put this to work for you? Sign up for The College Financial Plan Masterclass. You’ll develop a detailed financial plan for college, learn strategies to maximize financial aid and merit scholarships, find out how to qualify for tax credits and other benefits, and get your student a great college education at a price that won’t knock your family’s other financial goals off the rails. Sign up now! Just $299.