What “meeting 100% of financial need” really means

When a college claims to meet 100% of financial need, it can sound deceptively as if an admitted student will get whatever amount of financial aid they need to attend. But it’s not necessarily quite that generous. To understand “meeting 100% of financial need,” let’s look briefly at how the process of applying for and evaluating financial need for college works.

First, you file a FAFSA, which details the student’s and parent’s income and assets. The government crunches it through a formula, and you receive a report back containing your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—that’s the amount of money you are expected to pay for the upcoming year at any college. Some colleges also require that you submit additional forms, which can change EFC for their own evaluation, but the FAFSA is always your starting point.

In the event that the Cost of Attendance (COA) at any college that admits you exceeds your EFC, it’s the job of that college’s financial aid department to make up the difference in the form of a financial aid package. That package can contain a combination of grants/scholarships (free money that does not need to be paid back), loans, and work study.

But financial aid offices don’t have to just blindly follow the numbers when they create those awards. In putting financial aid packages together, they might decide to offer a more generous package to a particularly desirable student. That’s preferential packaging at work.

Unfortunately, there are also cases where a financial aid package does not cover the full difference between your EFC and the COA. That’s called “unmet need,” and the higher the number, the worse the news.

So, colleges that claim to meet 100% of financial need are telling you that there will almost certainly be no “unmet need” as part of your financial aid package. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily like the package, as for many families, their calculated EFC is actually more than they believe they can afford to pay. And just like all financial aid packages, not all financial aid is necessarily free money, and those that come from schools claiming to meet 100% of need can still include loans and work study.

If you’re concerned about paying for college, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that you apply only to those schools that claim to meet full financial need, because you’ll be limiting yourself to under 100 colleges (here’s a list courtesy of Mark Kantrowitz). That might sound like a lot, but the list can shorten dramatically if you’re not admissible or just don’t like the schools.

Still, it’s worth paying attention to a college’s track record regarding financial aid awards. If you’re up for some detailed and potentially revealing research, head to College Navigator, maintained by the National Center for Educational Statistics. Search for a college, and then dig into both the “Financial Aid” and “Net Price” tabs. Specifically, you want to look at the average size of the financial aid award, the breakdown of grants, loans, and scholarships, and the average net price for those students on financial aid. That will give you a sense of how many students receive aid, the amount and type of aid being distributed, and just how much of a dent that financial aid is making on the cost for those students in attendance.

A college may meet 100% of your needs as they define them. But that doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get everything you think you need.