It's frustrating that the federal government required all schools to provide Net Price Calculators, but they all get to say "this may not apply if your parents are divorced", even though half of all kids have divorced parents. I've been asking at college visits, emailing and calling financial aid officers, and can't get a straight answer from anyone. Here is what I've learned:
1) Some colleges are FAFSA only. That means they calculate the EFC based on the custodial household only, including stepparents. This includes most state schools, and some private schools.
2) CSS/Profile colleges, which include most private colleges, use a variety of formulas:
a) Add together the EFC of two households, run independently. This means they are including the assets and income of four adults. This is the worse case scenario.
b) Add together the EFC of the CSS Institutional Formula. This formula includes 50% of the assets of each household (recognizing that it's far too easy to transfer assets between spouses), and only the biological parent income. They ask about the assets and income of step-parents, but only use the assets. This seems fair, but in my discussions, it seems most financial aid officers have no idea how the CSS comes up with the Institutional Formula, and they don't know if their school uses it or not.
c) Start with the EFC of the custodial household, and only change it if the EFC of the non-custodial household is greatly different. They ask for all the information, but don't use it all. This also seems fair -- if your non-custodial parent is a gazillionaire, they will adjust it. But if both parents are just your typical middle-class household, they only use one household. As that household income includes child support, the non-custodial income is already factored in (since child support is generally based on that income).
I'm curious what parents who have already been through this process have found.