A Formula That Adds Anxiety

Families recoil at how much is expected of them.

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Those in charge of the formulas assert their budgets are realistic estimates of the minimum it takes to live. Families that spend more are making choices—buying a car instead of taking public transport, living in a nicer neighborhood—rather than allocating that money to college, they say.

"These are not supposed to be lifestyle budgets," says Susan McCracken, who heads the College Board's need-estimating program. "The idea is to draw a line in the sand for everyone and say, 'Above this, you have the ability to start making choices.'"

Parents say the EFC is just part of a larger system that is forcing them to take on costs they simply can't afford. Although formulas result in very low estimates of financial need, most colleges say they don't have enough money to limit the family's costs to the EFC. Fully a quarter of students who the government says need financial aid don't get a penny in grants or scholarships. And those who do get aid receive so little that the families have to raise, on average, $5,300 more than their EFC.

Bellew, who expects to have to come up with $8,000 above her EFC this year, says these gaps are causing parents like her to borrow against their homes or postpone their retirements. "The system," she says, "is totally broken."