September 5, 2006

EFC – expected family contribution, and the problems therein

Posted in The Financial Aid Process at 12:18 PM by Joe From Boston

THe EFC (expected family contribution) is great in theory. It impartially calculates what a family should be able to afford to pay for a child’s education. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always calculate cost-of-living in an accurate manner. Take for example, this article on Nantucket, an island of the coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

Nantucket’s image is of a summer playground for the rich and famous. The locals, however, are not rich, and must pay to have everything – EVERYTHING – shipped from the mainland as Nantucket’s only major resource is fish. Though salaries are higher than those on the mainland, folks actually net less money, because of the much higher cost of living. Colleges don’t take this into account, though. Read on:

Rich on paper, islanders denied aid

Constance McDonough-Thayer has a hard time convincing financial aid directors that she is not well off. They see her family’s yearly income and assumptions are made.

McDonough-Thayer, a 2006 Nantucket High School graduate, is not alone. Many of her peers, who like her are bound for college this week, have similar stories to tell.

While Nantucket incomes may look high by mainland standards, they are offset by the high cost of island living. Food, clothing, housing, gas, heating oil – practically everything – costs far more on Nantucket than on the mainland.

But college financial aid offices don’t take that into account when parceling out monetary assistance.

That puts Nantucket graduates at a disadvantage when applying for financial aid, and often jeopardizes their ability to afford college.

”The financial aid office at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford looked at my family’s income, which would be high for somebody living off-island. But on Nantucket it’s different. My mom has to pay rent on the nursery, and most of my dad’s work is in the summer,” said McDonough-Thayer, who received only a $2,000 loan from the school based on her family’s estimated contribution, which would not even put a dent in the $36,000 yearly bill.

Fortunately, she received $14,200 in scholarship money from the Nantucket community and high school. She also worked full time this summer to raise $3,000 to finish paying off her first semester bill, which will go toward her tuition.

Once the second semester bill rolls around, it is going to be the same struggle all over again, but this time she will not have the scholarship money to put toward the bill, and the $3,000 she earned over the summer will already have been spent.

”Probably what’s going to happen is I’m going to maintain my GPA (grade point average) that is required for my community service scholarship and apply for merit scholarships and non-need-based grants … And I’m going to get a job second semester,” she said.

Her situation is not uncommon for Nantucket High graduates who, in the eyes of the U.S. Department of Education, are considered wealthier than most applicants based on their parents’ annual salaries, said Jim Dalzell, the high school’s guidance counselor.

In actuality, the income of Nantucket working families is relative to the price inflation of the island, which does not get considered on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. This can pose serious problems when total college costs, including tuition, room and board and a meal plan, may cost $40,000 or more a year.

It does help that the Nantucket community offers an abundance of scholarships, Dalzell said. More than $400,000 in scholarship money was awarded to this past year’s graduating class, not including the two free rides the Nantucket Golf Club gave to Rachel Schneider and Kelsey Fredericks, making Nantucket in the top 5 percentile in the state for high school scholarship awards.

”It’s funny, when you’re at school, you say you’re from Nantucket and people automatically assume that you’re rich and that you’re like the people who come here in the summer,” McDonough-Thayer said. ”But you have to understand that Nantucket isn’t just a vacation spot, or a place to party. People live there and are trying to support their families,” she said.

(Published: September 4, 2006)


1 Comment »

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