Were you "gapped" in financial aid by the college you're attending?

My name is Jeff Selingo. I am the author of a forthcoming book on college admissions and working on an article for the New York Times. I have received permission from College Confidential to post here. I am interested in interviewing parents of college-going students about financial-aid gapping. That’s the practice of when colleges give you substantially less in financial aid than your EFC shows you should receive. If your son or daughter is enrolled at a college right now and has been substantially gapped in their financial-aid package compared to your federal EFC, please email me at jeff@selingo.com. I’m looking for people willing to talk on the record and share their financial-aid letters.

Where does the federal government, or any college, say anywhere that a college has a duty or responsibility to provide need-based financial aid that covers the gap between the artificial EFC spit out by FAFSA and the college’s Cost of Attendance?

Whatever you write, please don’t propogate the myth that the FAFSA EFC is supposed to inform college students and their parents how much they will actually be expected to pay for college.

Moderator’s Note:
The OP has been vetted for this.

It may be more useful to write an article on how accurate colleges’ net price calculators are compared to their actual financial aid offers.

Conventional wisdom on these forums is that the net price calculators tend to be accurate for simple family finances (mostly W-2 income), but less likely to be accurate for situations like divorced parents where the college wants both parents’ finances (probably often due to not having correct information of the other ex-spouse when using the net price calculator), or complex income (e.g. self employment, small business, real estate, etc.).

Please be aware that FAFSA’s EFC does not provide students with an estimate of what any particular college might cost. Colleges both consider additional information (for example, often the CSS Profile) and each has its own own formula for calculating need. Focusing on the FAFSA EFC number by itself is a common but often critical mistake.

Instead, students and their parents should complete the Net Price Calculator (“NPC”) located on each college’s financial aid website. The NPC will provide a financial aid estimate, including a breakdown of the types of aid included.

Qualifier: historically, some colleges’ NPCs have been less useful for more complex family financials due to a failure to include all the needed information. Complex situations may include owning a business, divorce, farm, and rental properties. It’s unclear how common it still is, in 2020, for NPCs to be inaccurate for these reasons, as many college NPCs may have caught up with these issues. A few colleges have a reputation for poor-quality calculators, such as NYU, though often families have no particular reason to know; it’s not as though colleges’ NPCs are subject to posted student reviews, as far as I am aware.

So, @choiceauthor , you may wish to clarify your question. Decide whether you asking:

(a) simply whether students’ actual offered packages differ from their FAFSA EFC i,* or

(b) whether students did not receive enough aid, or were not predicted to receive enough aid per the NPC, to attend because their income or assets did not allow for that under the college’s calculations (the commonly used term is “donut hole”), or

© the college’s Net Price Calculator was inaccurate (perhaps for one of the above-mentioned situations such as divorce or owning a business).


Please do not perpetuate the myth that the federal EFC is what the student/family will pay. It is not, and the phrase “expected family contribution” is a misnomer. EFC is more of an index than a dollar amount.

In addition, families know in advance that they will be “gapped” if they apply to a college that does not meet full need. There are only a VERY limited number of colleges that do not “gap.” Gapping is the norm.

The federal EFC generated by the FAFSA is used to determine Pell Grant eligibilty. It’s not the amount families should expect to have to pay for any particular school. An estimate of that number can be generated by each school’s Net Price Calculator, but those aren’t accurate for divorced parents or business owners. And the information entered has to be accurate or the output won’t be.

I’m looking for families who had substantial amounts of “unmet need,” enrolled anyway, and how they filled the gap.

Yes, gapping is the norm. But according to federal data, gapping has increased substaintially in the last decade. So I’m looking for families who had big gaps, did they enroll anyway, and how did they fill the gap.

We had a substantial gap the year we had two kids in college at schools that didn’t meet full need for all.

We paid college costs out of current earnings. It’s called…we planned ahead to do this

Moderator’s Note
The OP has been approved to have two threads going on the same topic to get more input.

So you are basically asking for people that bought something that they really shouldn’t be able to afford based upon a fairly generic affordability index?

Yes, I’m not sure I want to read stories about families who made financially irresponsible decisions (there do tend to be more affordable choices when faced with a gap), or who took out large parent loans.

Of course not all who chose to attend a school that gapped them were necessarily poor decisions, and hopefully OP can sort thru that. Some families can make it work, as thumper1 did by allocating a significant proportion of current income to the college bill(s). Others might stop retirement contributions for a few years (although I know some might argue that’s a bad decision too, IMO it depends on the parents’ ages).

Each situation is unique, but what we often see on CC threads are students/parents who didn’t do proper research and/or planning with regard to identifying affordable schools.

How does one even do that? You enroll and can’t pay for it? Doesn’t the student get dropped from classes if the bill isn’t paid?

I ran the NPCs, determined that we just couldn’t afford certain schools, and therefore my kids didn’t apply. My family falls into the “donut hole”, so my kids go to in state schools where we can afford it. I’ve been saving in 529s since they were toddlers and it still isn’t enough, so some just comes out of my paychecks.

Is anyone NOT gapped? I mean, my daughter is at a generous meets full need school, but without an outside scholarship helping out she still couldn’t afford it because their idea of our full need and our idea of our full need are different. I thought that was the norm, if not the best possible scenario even.

I agree that most schools gap…even meet full need schools for EFC 0 students, as many meet full need schools will include anywhere from $3K-$7K student self-help (which could be construed as gapping) in the financial aid packages. Students are expected to work summers, during the school year and/or take out Federal Direct Student Loans to satisfy the student-self help number.

Student self help is not gapping. At pretty much all full need schools there is an expectation that the student will be an active participant in the financing of their education.

At full need schools, most of the self help through summer earnings is in the form of the start of money you will need when you get to college. Most of the time, this self help moneys is used to toward the direct billed items.

it is the student who is responsible for purchasing XL sheets, laundry detergent , notebooks, textbooks and other sundry items. Schools are very upfront that if you do not met your summer earnings, you will not receive additional aid to make up the short fall.

At schools that do not have loans as part of their financial aid packaging will provide loans to students who do not make their summer earning or may need the funds to pay their EFC. However, this is not an option for students who already have loans in their package.

Even if a student has work study as part of their financial aid package, you must first apply/interview for a job and work that job before you receive funding.

there are close to 5,000 colleges and universities in the United States. The overwhelming majority do not meet 100% demonstrated need. The ones that give the most generous financial aid will require the CSS profile or their own institutional forms to get a fuller look at the family’s financial situation.

I am from NYC where a 0 EFC student can have their cost covered by attending CUNY, being funded through TAP and PELL while living at home. This may not be ideal for students looking for a residential experience, as a 0 EFC will not cover the direct cost of attending SUNY, even if a student is EOP eligible.

From the responses here, it sounds as if some think the FAFSA EFC is a conservative estimate, or an underestimation, of what a given family can afford to pay. Am I interpreting that correctly? My impression is that even FAFSA is a wildly liberal estimate, or overestimation, of what a family can afford as it is loosely based on an outdated model from a hypothetical family budget from the 1960s. Also, I don’t think it takes into account differences in cost of living for different geographical areas.

Not that this has much to do with “gapping”, but I’m getting the feeling that folks here think the FAFSA EFC is somewhat generous?

FAFSA EFC is a mythical number that most families cannot afford. That’s why I looked at NPC. Even then, yes, my student has a loan, and we pay the rest from his 529 and any shortfall after that comes from his savings and our regular paychecks. And he goes to an in state college.