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Financial Aid and Scholarships


DISCLAIMER: The Paying for College section of the VICCI Center website is intended to give you a very simplified explanation of how paying for college works and then point you toward resources for learning more.  Suggestions for how to save on costs are based on VICCI Center volunteers’ research and experiences helping students with their college admissions planning.  We cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information.  The guide does not claim to represent the views of Lowell High School or the San Francisco Unified School District.  Students should work with their school counselors at all stages of the process.  Families should consult a financial professional for individual advice.


No doubt about it; college is expensive.  Luckily there are resources to help you pay for it.  It’s important to understand how paying for college works.  This is a brief explanation.  After you’ve read it, use the links we’ve provided to learn as much as you can about the process.


How it works


Every college has a cost of attendance which includes tuition, fees, room and board, books and supplies.  If you don’t apply for financial aid or scholarships, that price is what you will pay to attend that college.


If you do apply for financial aid, your Expected Family Contribution will be calculated.  (More about this later.)  As the name implies, you are expected to pay this amount.


Your demonstrated need is the cost of attendance minus your Expected Family Contribution


If you are admitted to a college where you’ve applied for financial aid, the school’s financial aid office will put together an aid package to cover some or all of your Demonstrated Need.  The aid package could be made up of grants, work-study jobs and/or loans


Grants are like a discount, you don’t have to pay them back.  Grants can come from the college, or from the federal or state governments.  Very low income students may qualify for federal grants like the Pell Grant, or state grants like the Cal Grant.  Work-study jobs require you to do an on-campus job to earn that portion of your aid package.  Loans must be repaid.  There are various types of loans, and your aid package may contain more than one kind.


Some colleges create an aid package that covers all your demonstrated need.  Other colleges leave some demonstrated need unmet.  You have to pay for the unmet need.


Your net cost of attendance, or what you would actually pay to attend the college, includes your Expected Family Contribution, the unmet need and the amount you’ve borrowed in loans, which you must pay back later.


It is up to you and your family to determine how you will pay your net cost of attendance.  Savings, gifts from relatives and more loans are some sources of funds you can use to pay your net cost of attendance.  Scholarships are another source.  They can come from the college itself or from outside sources.  Scholarships from the college are usually included in the aid package, however.  Colleges usually use the money that you earn from any outside scholarships to modify your aid package before they will use it to cover your Expected Family Contribution. 


How you pay for your net costs can have tax implications as well as affect what aid you might qualify for in the future.  Loan repayment can also have a big impact on your future financial outlook.  Make sure you understand your options.  You may want to consult a financial professional for advice tailored to your specific situation.


Expected Family Contribution


As you’ve seen, your Expected Family Contribution is an important factor in determining how much you will have to pay to attend a college.  How is it calculated?


All public colleges use the FAFSA, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid, to determine your Expected Family Contribution.  The FAFSA is also used to determine if you qualify for federal or state grants and loans.  Most private colleges also require you to complete the FAFSA (so they can include federal grants and loans in your aid package), but many also require that you complete another financial aid application, the CSS Profile, to determine your Expected Family Contribution for their college.  There is a fee for completing the CSS Profile, which is a product of The College Board.  The Profile considers more factors in its calculation, including home equity.  Some private colleges have an additional college-specific aid application as well.  Check each college website for its requirements.


You should get an estimate of your Expected Family Contribution early on in your college search process.  The College Board website has a calculator for estimating both the FAFSA (called Federal Method) and the Profile (called Institutional Method) Expected Family Contributions.  In addition, most college websites have a net price calculator that you can use to get an even better estimate of what you would have to pay to attend.


You can find the College Board Expected Family Contribution calculator.


Learn more about the FAFSA


You can also get an estimate of your FAFSA Expected Family Contribution by using the FAFSA4caster calculator.  Learn more about the FAFSA4caster.


Use the FAFSA4caster.


Fill out the FAFSA online.


Learn more about the CSS Profile.


The CSS Profile application.


The U.S. Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency Center has tools for getting an overview of education costs and for finding a college's net price calculator.


This article from Forbes has a very complete description of the financial aid process.


This article by Lynn O’Shaugnessy, author of The College Solution, talks about the EFC (Expected Family Contribution)  and why it’s important to estimate it early.


Merit-based aid


If your Expected Family Contribution is too high for you to receive need-based financial aid, you still may be able to receive merit-based aid. 


As colleges build their classes of students, they use their aid money to attract the kinds of students they want to enroll.  The most highly selective colleges tend to use their aid money only for those with need, thus helping to increase the diversity of their student bodies.  Colleges that accept a larger percentage of their applicants use some of their money for need-based aid. Many of these colleges also use some of their money for merit-based aid in order to attract excellent students who will raise the school’s academic profile.


As you research colleges, see if they offer merit-based aid.  Some public universities even offer merit-based aid to out-of-state students.  Look for colleges where you would be among the top applicants.  Sometimes there are special applications to qualify.  Check with the college.  If your grades, test scores and/or other accomplishments make you especially attractive to a school, you could be offered merit–based aid. 


You can search for merit-based aid at, midway down the page: is a website that provides a free directory of merit scholarships from colleges across the country.  You can browse the directory by state or search by college name without registering.  If you register you gain access to other tools including the Cappex service which finds colleges and college-provided merit scholarships that match your profile. 


Outside scholarships


Many organizations offer scholarships.  Each organization sets its own criteria for selecting recipients.  Many scholarships have a need component, but some don’t.  So there are both need-based and merit-based scholarships.


Check with your parents to see if their employers offer scholarships for employees’ children.  Check with religious and community groups you belong to.  Use online scholarship searches, but watch out for scams.  You shouldn’t have to pay to search.  The VICCI Center maintains a list of scholarship opportunities and announces them in School Loop and the weekly bulletins.


You can search for outside scholarships at


Advice on recognizing and protecting yourself from scams can be found.


If you think you might be a finalist in the National Merit Scholarship program based on your PSAT scores, look carefully at the program’s student guide.  Check the lists of employers who offer scholarships to National Merit finalists whose parents work for them or finalists who are planning to major in a related field.  Also check the list of colleges that offer scholarships to National Merit finalists who commit to attending the school.  Many of these awards are multi-year grants.  Some even offer full scholarships.  These awards tend to be larger than the standard single-year National Merit scholarship of $2500.  Check the list while you are still researching colleges, so you can decide if any of the schools would be a good fit for you.  You must apply and be accepted to the college offering the scholarship in order to qualify to receive it.


The National Merit Scholarship program Student Guide.


More Resources for Financial Aid & Scholarships


The PACT advisor in the VICCI Center is an excellent resource person for help with financial aid, especially for students from low-income families, those with parents who don’t speak English or those who are the first in their family to go to college.


The “Paying for your Post Secondary Education”  section of the Counseling Department’s website is a good place to start learning more about financial aid resources.  Be sure to follow the links in their explanations to learn more.  Many of the links go to the College Board’s “Pay for College” section.  It’s a good site to explore.


Get in-depth information on federal student aid programs, applying for financial aid, and repaying student loans at the official Federal Student Aid website.  This is a great site with good explanations of the aid process.  Links to the FAFSA application, colleges’ net price calculators and much more are available.  There is also an excellent college search engine on the site.


The California Student Aid Commission, which administers the Cal Grant program, publishes an excellent workbook and brochures every year called "Fund Your Future".  The larger format workbooks, which contain more detailed information, give good explanations and include a great list of websites on the back cover and includes a discussion of the costs of borrowing and the value of planning ahead to cut expenses at college.  The workbook is available on their website as a .pdf file with the current version in English and a previous version in Spanish.  You can also access their shorter format brochures online in various languages including English, Spanish, Chinese, Hmong, Korean, Punjabi, Tagalog and Vietnamese.


The list of websites from the back of the brochure.


NACAC publishes a brief flyer on the financial aid process (PDF).


FinAid! The SmartStudent Guide to Financial Aid is the premier online clearing house for information on all aspects of financial aid and paying for college.


The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a tool for comparing the financial aid offers you receive.  The site also has very clear student financial guides describing loan and banking options.


This section has provided a few resources for financial aid and scholarship information.  See the Helpful Websites section of our website for more.



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