Understanding How Financial Aid Calculators Work 

For all the seniors and parents who have been on the hunt for the information needed to complete the FAFSA and CSS Profile financial aid applications, you may have come across the idea of financial aid calculators. You might also be wondering what a financial aid calculator is and just how do they work? 

There are three main calculators that colleges will use, all of which follow a set of rules specific to each calculator. The three calculators that we will cover are: the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and Consensus.

  • Each calculator has a different income and asset protection amount which is excluded from the calculation.
  • After the calculation is completed, what you will end up with is called the “Expected Family Contribution” or EFC. The EFC is the minimum amount your family will be expected to pay towards your college expenses based on financial need
  • The difference between the EFC and the total cost of attendance at a college will equal your financial aid need at that college.
  • It is important to be mindful that room, board, tuition, and fees are all included in the total cost of attendance for a child at a college.

What Differentiates These Three Calculators?  

You may be aware that most colleges will use the FAFSA’s financial aid calculator. These colleges require only the FAFSA financial application be filed.

Another calculator that is less commonly used is the College Scholarship Services Profile or the CSS Profile, and it is used by approximately 300 colleges. These colleges require both the FAFSA, and the CSS Profile financial aid applications be filed.

Lastly, a third calculator called Consensus comes from the 568 Presidents Group with only 21 elite colleges using this calculator. Consensus colleges require both the FAFSA and the CSS Profile application to be filed, from which they extract the data needed for the consensus calculator.

Knowing now that colleges can vary with which calculators they use, you will find it valuable to know what calculators the colleges on your list are employing.  

Main Differences 

 FAFSA      CSS Profile Consensus 
Overall Only non-retirement assets are reported and used in calculation.All assets are reported, but not all are used in calculation.All assets are reported, but not all are used in calculation.
General Assets Excludes primary home value, a family farm, and a small family business. Counts businesses, farms, equity of the home, and annuities.Includes the same as the CSS Profile, but only considers home equity up to 120% of parental income. 
Exemption Exempts a family from asset consideration if parents filed a tax return without a Schedule 1 AND had income totaling less than $50,000 or were not required to file a tax return. No exemptions. No exemptions. 
Separated Households Grants leniency toward divorced parents where the low-income parent holds primary custody. Grants no leniency toward divorced parents (Both incomes are considered). Grants no leniency toward divorced parents (Both incomes are considered). 
Parent Assets Assessed at 5.6% (i.e., for every $100,000 in assets, your EFC is increased by $5,600). Assessed at 5% Assessed at 5% 
Student Assets Assessed at 20% Assessed at 25% Assessed at 5% 

Which Calculator Will I Be Using? 

This will depend on which colleges you are interested in applying to. You will want to know which formula and financial aid applications each college on your list uses. 

While only one calculator may be used at a given college, it is still wise to use all three calculators to estimate your EFC. By reviewing all three calculators you may find that you qualify for more financial aid at one college versus another based on which calculator they are using.  

Westface College Planning helps navigate the financial aid process from start to finish, including filing your FAFSA and CSS Profile. To learn how we can minimize college costs, sign up for a complimentary consultation.  

Ready for your own success story?

grad happy depositphotos_68262971-stock-photo-graduation-girl-poses-with-mom

If you’re a typical parent with college-bound students, you’re probably overwhelmed. You want to help your sons and daughters make the right choices and prevent overpaying for their education. You’re not alone! We’re here to help. Schedule your free consultation today – click below to get started!

Catch our free, on-demand webinar:

How to Survive Paying for College

graduation cap with Financial Aid text on assorted hundred dollar bills

Join Beatrice Schultz, CFP® for our on-demand webinar, where she provides parents with the exact steps that often greatly lower the cost of college, even if there’s little time to prepare.