You may have seen articles about colleges that meet 100% of students’ need, like this recent one in US News and World Report.

But what does this actually mean?  That the lucky accepted students attend these colleges for free? If you tell them you need $50,000 to afford to attend, do these colleges promise to award $50,000 of financial aid?

Unfortunately, this is not what it means!   The key is first understanding how NEED is defined in the world of college financial aid.

Let’s break it down –

To apply for financial aid for college, a student must file a form called the FAFSA. The FAFSA, which is administered by the Federal government, collects information about the student’s and their family’s financial situation. Specifically, it looks at income and assets for both student and parent. Some private colleges will also require a form called the CSS Profile, which asks additional questions to get a more complete look at the family’s financial situation.

Both the FAFSA and the Profile will generate a very important number – the Expected Family Contribution, or EFC.   This is essentially a measure of the family’s financial strength; the amount they can reasonably be expected to contribute towards the cost of the student’s education.   (Some families might not find their EFC reasonable at all, but this is a separate issue!)

When a college puts together a financial aid package for a student, they use the EFC to determine how much aid to offer. Basically, they take the “Cost of Attendance” for their college (which includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, etc.), then subtract the family’s EFC (the amount the family is expected to pay.) The amount left over is the student’s “need.”

Cost of Attendance – EFC = Need

In other words, need is the gap between the Cost of Attendance at a specific college and a student’s Expected Family Contribution. Your EFC will be the same, or very similar, at every college. Because Cost of Attendance differs, your need will be what changes. The more expensive the college, the higher your need.

In a perfect world, all colleges would have the funding to meet every student’s need through financial aid. But, unfortunately, this isn’t the case – for most applicants, most colleges only meet a certain percentage of need. At many private schools in fact, a student can expect to be pay their EFC, plus an additional amount.

The next important question is – How much of a student’s need is each college willing to meet? While the “average need meet” for each college can easily be found online, the important thing to know is that most colleges will decide how much of a student’s need to meet based on how badly they want that student to attend. Simply put, more desirable candidates will have more of their need met. This is why applying to colleges where you are the top of the applicant pool is one of the best ways to attract better financial aid awards!

And this is why a college that meets 100% of need is so desirable! A student accepted to one of these institutions is guaranteed to have their full need met, and pay only their EFC out of pocket.

So why doesn’t everyone attend these super generous schools? You guessed it – most of them are very, very competitive. But if these colleges are a good fit for you, and you have a reasonable shot at acceptance, then go ahead and apply!

The list of colleges that claim to meet 100% of need can be found here.