It’s wild to think of the enormous, cavernous gap between what I knew about financial aid as a high school senior applying to college (nothing) and what I know now (a lot). As a high school senior, I thought the only way to get money for college was to work really, really hard and earn a scholarship based on having stronger grades and/or test scores than my fellow admitted students. So as I developed my college list, I researched additional school-specific scholarship opportunities (they usually had “presidential” in the name) and I wrote many extra essays to be considered. These, my friends, were merit-based scholarships and can provide a really powerful opportunity to help pay for college. What I didn’t realize is that many colleges would automatically consider me for need-based financial aid if I were admitted...and based on my family's income, I likely would have qualified for a significant package at institutions with the most generous aid policies.
So if you are a lost lamb in the world of financial aid like I was, here are ten definitions to help you out:
Need-based financial aid: financial aid awarded based on a family’s financial resources. Free money offered on the basis of need is generally called a grant. “Need” is defined by the institutions and the government, it is calculated differently at different institutions, and it may or may not coincide with a family’s perception of what they need to make a college affordable. Lower-income families will qualify for more need-based aid and higher-income families will qualify for less or no aid, depending on financial circumstances. At Tufts, we provide about $80 million in need-based aid each year.
Merit-based aid: financial aid awarded based on a measure of achievement seen in the admissions process. This may include academic-related scholarships, athletic scholarships, arts scholarships, and others. Merit-based scholarships are often granted without regard to a student’s financial need. At Tufts, we do not offer merit-based aid.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC): the amount of money the government or an institution calculates that a family can pay for a year of their student’s education. This will be a smaller number for lower-income families and a larger number for higher-income families. The amount is calculated based on information about your family’s income, assets, expenses, and household size, as explained in your financial aid application. The EFC is determined on an annual basis and you will need to re-apply for financial aid each academic year.
Meets full need: there are about 80 colleges and universities in the United States, including Tufts, with a financial aid policy that commits to covering the full demonstrated need of all admitted students. This means your financial aid package will make up the difference between the total cost of attendance and your expected family contribution. For example, if a full-need university’s cost of attendance is $70,000 and your family contribution is $15,000, your financial aid package will amount to $55,000. Depending on the institution, your need may be met with a combination of grants (free money), loans, and a work study allocation.
FAFSA: the Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a (relatively) short, online financial aid form that determines your eligibility for federal and state grants and loan programs. It is available at fafsa.gov and is always free to submit. Submitting the FAFSA can make a student eligible for a federal Pell Grant (a grant program for low-income students), specific state grants, and federal student loans. At Tufts, the deadline to submit the FAFSA for Regular Decision applicants is February 1. Please note that the FAFSA is not required for undocumented applicants or international applicants to Tufts.
CSS Profile: the CSS Profile is a much longer, much more detailed financial aid form administered by the College Board. It is required by many private colleges and universities to better understand each students’ financial need and eligibility for institutional funding. There is a submission fee associated with the CSS Profile, but the form grants an automatic fee waiver to eligible students. At Tufts, the deadline to submit the CSS Profile for Regular Decision applicants is February 1.
Noncustodial Profile: many private colleges and universities, including Tufts, will require financial information for both biological parents to determine your eligibility for financial assistance. If your parents are divorced or separated, your non-custodial parent will need to complete a separate version of the CSS Profile to provide information about their financial resources. For students who do not have contact with their non-custodial parent, you may submit a noncustodial waiver request to be considered by our financial aid office.
IDOC: the Institutional Documentation Service is a secure online tool provided by the College Board through which students can upload and submit required tax documents. The required tax documents may differ for each school that requires you to complete IDOC, but the most common documents will be parents’ federal income taxes (or non-tax filer statement), parents’ W-2s and/or 1099s, parents’ business tax returns, student’s federal income taxes (or non-tax filer statement), and student’s W-2s and/or 1099s. At Tufts, the deadline for Regular Decision applicants to submit the required documents to IDOC is February 15.
Verification: a process required by the US Department of Education in which financial aid offices collect additional documentation from selected students in order to verify their financial information. At Tufts, verification-related documents are submitted through IDOC after a student enrolls, but other colleges may request that additional documents be mailed to them. Colleges may also request documentation to verify the citizenship status a student reported on their FAFSA.
Net Price Calculator: an online tool made available by each college and university to help students and families estimate their eligibility for financial assistance. “Net price” refers to the amount a student will be asked to pay each year after subtracting the amount of scholarships and grants offered. The estimate produced by a Net Price Calculator is only as accurate as the data you provide, but NPCs can be helpful resources to plan for the cost of college, especially if you are considering an Early Decision application. Tufts’ NPC is available here.
Hopefully this long-but-straightforward glossary proves useful to you and your family as you navigate the complexity of the financial aid process. If you’re just starting out and feeling overwhelmed, the best way to begin is to compile the assorted tax documents you will need to reference while completing the FAFSA and CSS Profile. I also strongly recommend keeping an eye on your application status page to be sure the materials you’ve submitted have been received and processed by the financial aid office. And feel free to reach out to our financial aid office if you need something!