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To make a financial aid estimate, it is necessary to have complete demographic information on a student and her family, updated estimates on cost of college attendance for a given year, and some other data. There are free calculator tools online that students can use to estimate their financial aid burdens, and many colleges and universities provide similar tools. It is important to be aware that an estimate is not always accurate, and there may be variations in the actual financial aid award.
Financial aid awards are based on cost of tuition and student need. For a financial aid estimate, independent students need tax information from the past year along with information on their assets, dependents, and any financial benefits they receive. Dependent students need this information for themselves and their parents. If the student's parents are separated, information on only one parent is sufficient.
With this information, students can compare the total funds they have available for college, given a formula that weighs assets, income, and expenses, against a chart of need-based financial aid awards. A financial aid estimate calculator can help with this; the student fills in a series of fields, and the calculator will estimate the expected family contribution for college expenses. Students can use this to see what kind of financial aid they may qualify for at a given school.
It is important to be aware that the formulas the government uses to calculate eligibility for financial aid may vary from those used by individual educational institutions. The government formula is typically used by all public schools, along with private schools that offer government aid. For determining eligibility for internal scholarships and grants, the institutional formula is used. It is often more generous than the government financial aid estimate, to allow students in the lower middle classes to access more financial assistance than they would otherwise be able to receive.
If a financial aid estimate suggests that a student's share of cost will be very high, there may be a mistake. Students should double check the numbers to make sure they didn't add a zero somewhere or forget to declare a dependent or significant expense. If the number is still high but the student feels she cannot afford to contribute that much, she may want to consider filing an appeal with the financial aid office. This will allow the student to disclose financial circumstances not discussed on basic financial aid paperwork, so the financial aid office can adjust the student's aid award, if possible.