The Importance of Negative Expected Family Contributions

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has received a great deal of attention in the past year. From a much-needed change that allowed students to file the FAFSA in October instead of January for the following academic year to the pulling of the IRS Data Retrieval Tool that made FAFSA filing easier for millions of students, the federal financial aid system has had its ups and downs. But one criticism that has been consistent for years is that the FAFSA remains an extremely blunt—and complex—financial aid allocation instrument.

After students fill out the FAFSA, they receive an expected family contribution (EFC), which determines their eligibility for federal and other types of financial aid. EFCs are currently truncated at zero for reporting purposes, which lumps together millions of students with various levels of (high) financial need into the zero EFC category. In a previous article, I showed that more than one-third of undergraduate students have a zero EFC and how that rate has generally increased over time.

Yet the underlying FAFSA data allows for negative EFCs to be calculated, and these negative EFCs can be used for two different purposes. First, they could be used to give additional Pell Grant aid to the neediest students; there have been several proposals in the past to allow EFCs to go down to -$750 in order to boost Pell Grants by up to $750. Second, the sheer number of students classified in the zero EFC category makes identifying the very neediest students difficult when there are insufficient funds to help all students from lower-income families. Reporting negative EFCs would at least allow colleges to help target their often-scarce resources in the best possible manner.

In my newest article (just published in the Journal of Student Financial Aid, which is open-access!), I used five years of student-level FAFSA data from nine colleges to show how calculating negative EFCs can help identify students with the greatest levels of financial need. The graphics below give a rough idea of what the distributions of negative EFCs could look like under various scenarios and current FAFSA filing situations. (I show dependent students here, but the same story is generally true for independent students.)

I also looked at how much it might cost the federal Pell Grant program to fund EFCs of -$750 by increasing maximum Pell Grants by an additional $750 for the neediest students. I estimated that funding negative EFCs would have increased Pell Grant expenditures by between $5 billion and $7 billion per year, depending on the specification. This is far from a trivial change for a program that spent about $31.5 billion in 2013-14, but it would roughly return Pell spending to its high point following the Great Recession. To save money, additional Pell funds could be given just to students with an automatic zero EFC—students with low family incomes who are already receiving some kind of means-tested benefit (such as free lunches in high school). That sort of limited expansion could be funded out of the current Pell surplus (assuming it doesn’t get used for other purposes, as is currently proposed).

Regardless of whether students get more money from the federal government under a negative EFC, it is a no-brainer for Congress and the Department of Education to work together to at least release the negative EFC number alongside the current number. That way, states, colleges, and private foundations can better target their funds to students with the absolute greatest need. Until the FAFSA is simplified, it makes sense to better use all of the information that is collected on students so everyone can make better decisions on allocating scarce resources.

Author: Robert

I am an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. All opinions are my own.