College Financial Aid

College financial aid is primarily need-based. However, your level of “need” will vary from school to school. Your financial need is the difference between the cost of attending a particular college (the “cost of attendance”) minus what the student and family are expected to contribute (your “expected family contribution”, or “EFC”). 

Cost of attendance – Expected family contribution = “Need”
Your financial need depends on many factors, including your family’s income and assets. Your EFC is determined by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Every family should fill out the FAFSA, even if you don’t think you will qualify for aid. Completion of the FAFSA is often required in order to be considered for other types of money such as merit scholarships. Private colleges may require a slightly nosier financial aid application called PROFILE. Other types of financial aid include merit-based awards, scholarships, work-study, and low-interest student loans.
Fill out the FAFSA – no matter what!
Offers from each college should be considered carefully. A lower cost school can cost more out of pocket for your family. For example: Suppose your EFC is $12,000. A private east coast school has a cost of $40,000 per year, while a local CSU costs $12,000. You’d be expected to pay the whole bill for the CSU. The private school offers you need-based aid of $28,000 and a work-study program for another $4000. The private school ends up costing your family less! 
Don’t rule out private colleges because of their price tag.
Lastly, keep in mind that schools will discount tuition for students they really want. Private school tuition discounts average 33%, while public school tuition discounts average almost 15%.
Some helpful links:
FAFSA4caster – Junior parents - use the FAFSA forecaster to get an estimate of your EFC. – lots of information and useful calculators. Here is a link to their EFC Estimate Calculator – EFC calculator and related links
Federal Student Aid – this site is well organized and user friendly