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Wednesday, November 29, 2023

FAFSA & the New Student Aid Index (SAI): How they affect College Financial Aid


Photo by John Schnobrich

Article by Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS, Founder, Celtic College Consultants

Photo by John Schnobrich

In 2021, Congress passed a law calling for simplification and reform of the federal financial aid access process. The FAFSA Simplification Act has been being incrementally implemented; full implementation must be done by 12/31/23. The most significant change is the shift from the EFC to the SAI as metric by which a student's financial aid eligibility is determined.

Because of the complexity of the changes, the Department of Education is completely rewriting the underlying processor. Therefore, the 2024/2025 FAFSA will not be available until 12/31/23 and the data will not begin to be released to the colleges until the end of January, 2024. While this is a delay, it was the norm until just a few years ago to open the FAFSA on 1/1. Financial aid offices should manage to produce aid packages in a timely manner this year, just as they did in the past.

For those with students in college already, please remember that the FAFSA MUST BE FILED EVERY YEAR. Financial aid awards are only for one year. 

What is the SAI?

The SAI or Student Aid Index more accurately describes what the figure calculated by the FAFSA formula is for. The EFC (Expected Family Contribution) was misnamed; families paid more than the EFC. The SAI is the number colleges and governments will use to determine how much and what types of aid a student is eligible to receive.

The information the student and parent(s) enter into the FAFSA are used to calculate the SAI. The index, like the EFC, is based on the parents' available income, the student's income, and assets. Colleges determine each student's financial need by subtracting the SAI from their official COA (Cost of Attendance - the total cost to attend for one year). A student with a lower SAI, then, will be eligible for more federal financial aid, including grants (like the Pell), student loans, and federal work-study. States and colleges determine eligibility for their own grant and aid programs, too.

Plan to spend an hour or so in early January, 2024 to complete the FAFSA online at The student and one parent will need an FSA (Federal Student Aid) ID in order to electronically sign the FAFSA as well as any subsequent federal loan papers. Create an FSA ID here: 

What's the Difference between EFC and SAI?

The formula to calculate the SAI is different from the one used to calculate the EFC. Here are the most significant changes:

Number of Students in College

While this question remains on the FAFSA, the number of students in a family is not part of the SAI calculation. The number of college students in a family no longer impacts the FAFSA output (at least at the federal level). While approximately one-third of families have more than one student in college, this reality is no longer part of the calculations. DO report the number of college students your family has, however, since states and colleges can use this information for their own aid allocations. Financial aid officers do have the ability to reduce the SAI because of the number of students in college.Financial aid officers do have the ability to reduce the SAI because of the number of students in college; this change, when effected, would increase a student's eligibility for federal aid programs. The removal of the consideration of the number of collegians is offset by the increased income protection allowance. I am aware of some testing of this and the offset has been found to work well. 

Income Protection Allowance

Embedded in the FAFSA formula are various tables, including the Parent Income Protection Allowance (IPA). The IPA is significantly higher in the SAI formula than it was in the EFC formula. The IPA amounts depend on the number of people in the household. In general, the IPA is about 20% higher now than it was in the EFC formula.

The SAI can have a Negative Value

The lowest EFC was zero; the SAI can go as low as -$1500. This change allows the neediest students to be identified and more effectively helped. Some hope that financial assistance beyond the COA will be offered in order to help these students cover other college related expenses.

Pell Grant Eligibility

Eligibility for Pell grants is tied to the SAI, along with adjusted gross income and has been increased. Some students who would not have qualified for a Pell based solely on AGI may now qualify with their SAI.

Income Inclusions are Changing

401k contributions (which do not appear on the 1040), clergy and veterans benefits will no longer be included in income. Child support will be counted as an asset. Child support paid will factor in, as will combat pay, co-operative education earnings, state tax allowances, and SEP, SIMPLE, and Keough contributions (because they appear on the 1040).

For divorced families, the parent who provided the most financial support in the prior prior year (NOT the twelve months prior to filing) will be the parent to report information on the FAFSA. For the 2024/2025 school year, 2022 is the base year, the prior prior year.

A Note about 529 Accounts

With the changed formula, only parent owned 529 accounts with the student as beneficiary will be considered as assets. The EFC formula considered ALL 529 assets, no matter the beneficiary, since beneficiaries can easily be changed.

DRT is being replaced by the DDX

The Data Retrieval Tool (DRT), used to transfer income tax data from the IRS database to the FAFSA is being replaced by the Direct Data Exchange (DDX).

Differences at a Glance

How will People be Affected by SAI Changes?

Generally, the SAI formula is expected to result in increased aid eligibility for most students. Of course, the impact of the changes will differ from student to student.

Students from middle- and high-income households with multiple children in college may see a net loss in the total aid they receive. (However, when testing for this, my colleagues only saw such an increase for high-income families.) Additionally, people living in high income states may well see some negative impacts (be eligible for less aid) since state and local taxes are no longer considered in the calculations. Again, higher income families will be more adversely impacted by this change than other families.

Low-income students, particularly those with the greatest need, may well see the most benefit from the changes. Having an SAI which is negative will, hopefully, result in an increased amount of financial aid for these students. The hope is that this will happen, thus making college affordable for them.

Help with your Future Planning

Determining how the SAI will impact your cash flow during your child(ren)'s college years is a complex calculation and may well influence both your financial planning and college planning. Contact me today to schedule a consultation for guidance on cutting college costs and financing higher education. Email Katherine:

Thursday, November 16, 2023

Turning Test Scores into Scholarships, Lower Costs, & More


by Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS, Founder of Celtic College Consultants

As PSAT scores are released, another world of opportunities is opened to teens and their parents. Unfortunately, most are blind to the possibilities.

Test Scores Direct the College Search

Selecting a college is a task with many steps. Finding the right environment to develop in as a person is a daunting task. There are numerous factors to consider. Most students don't consider schools very far from home. Whether the propensity to choose a college close to home is due to a lack of confidence, the enticement of in state tuition (at public universities), the familiarity of schools nearby, or some other reason, it's important to make the decision carefully.

In addition to social factors and educational opportunities in line with each student's inclinations and goals, academic fit is a very significant factor. Several years ago, Purdue did a study evaluating the happiness of alumni and its relationship with which college they attended. Fundamentally, they explored whether which college one attends impacts one's happiness in life. Their findings surprised them. Where one attends college does not make the most importance with regard to future happiness. What was more important is what one does while at college - having a mentor, people who care about our personal and scholarly growth, participating in long term projects and internships - these factors make the most impact on students' lives. Another study showed that those who finish in the bottom half of the class, even at prestigious schools like Harvard, did not fare as well in life as those who finished in the top portion of their class. 

Test scores are indicators of where one's academic skills fall in the spectrum of students across the country, from public schools to home schools to elite boarding schools. Using scores to determine academic fit is a powerful indicator of a key factor when choosing colleges to visit, apply to, and, ultimately, attend. Many believe that, if their score is within the range listed for a school, that school is a good fit. In a sense, that is true, in another sense it is not. As a college consultant, I direct my students to use those scores to identify schools where they will thrive.

Test Scores Lead to Scholarships

90% of scholarship dollars comes from the colleges themselves. Some of these are tied to financial need while others are tied both to academic qualifications as well as financial need. Some scholarships are won solely by academic factors. Many of those schools list their scholarships in the financial aid section of their websites. With more colleges adopting test optional admissions policies, finding this information has become more difficult. Diligent research is necessary.

Test Scores Lead to Lower College Costs

For more than a decade, the average time to graduate with a bachelor's degree in the US has been SIX years. The dramatic rise in student debt is a side effect of this since most aid ends after four years. Students who use their scores to research colleges thoroughly also tend to take the time during high school to seriously explore possible careers and the related academic majors. These tasks are key to graduating college in four years. Changing majors and/or transferring colleges almost always leads to graduating with credits that don't count toward graduation requirements. Those credits cost time and money to earn nonetheless.

Using scores to identify special learning opportunities such as honors programs and honors colleges also helps students graduate in four years. Honors students typically live together as a community and enjoy privileges like registering for classes before the other students on campus, thus guaranteeing that they will not have problems accessing required courses because they are full.

Lastly, situating oneself among other highly motivated students on one's college campus provides peer pressure to study well, complete one's work well, and take sufficient course loads each term to graduate on time.

Navigating the complexities of college selection, exploring possible majors, programs, campuses, and careers, as well as developing leadership skills are all difficult for teens to do on their own. College consultants like myself work hard to lead teens through these challenges. 

To schedule a consultation with Katherine, email her at

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

EA, ED, RD, Rolling - Breaking Open the Admissions Options

 by Katherine O'Brien, MA CCPS

Founder, Celtic College Consultants

Applying to college seems pretty straightforward, at least from the outside. However, with various application options, testing options, recommendation options, and admissions options, there is a lot to sort out before you even begin.

N.B. Before I begin to describe these admissions options, please take note that some colleges have scholarship consideration or priority deadlines. 

Admissions Options - EA

Early Action is offered by hundreds of colleges. This application option has an early deadline so requires planning ahead. Testing needs to be done early, recommendations need to be gathered, and essays polished well in advance of the November 1 deadline (Check your prospective colleges to verify their deadline(s)!) Some schools even offer EA1 and EA2 - two rounds of early action.

Why apply EA? To show your serious interest in a college, to show your ability to be organized and get work done well in a timely fashion. Because you want to know that you are accepted before Christmas. To get the whole college application process over and done with. In order to take advantage of higher acceptance rates.

Why not apply EA? Because you've had some academic struggles during high school and want to show your wonderful fall senior grades to prospective colleges. Because you want to get your test scores higher to improve your chances at acceptance. Because your summer was full of incredible activities and preparing strong applications and essays just wasn't possible. Because you got started on the whole deciding you want to go to college, then making a college list, figuring out possible majors, and applying in August and need more time. Because you are involved in time intensive activities fall semester and didn't get your essays written over the summer so you can't create great applications in this time frame.

Admissions Options - ED

Early Decision is similar to early action. Some colleges offer this application option. Like EA, ED deadlines early and some colleges offer two rounds of it. ED differs in a very significant way, however. First, a student can only apply to one college using ED.  In that application, applicants and their parents agree to pull all other applications and attend this college if they are accepted.  Colleges love this application option because they know that the students they accept will be attending their college. In fact, the colleges with ED programs tend to fill 1/3 to 1/2 (or more!) of their incoming class from the ED pool.

Why apply ED? The acceptance rate is MUCH higher than the subsequent RD round. Apply ED if you are a legacy student, recruited athlete (or debater, musician, etc.), etc. For non-recruited or special category applicants, the acceptance rate is hard to determine. Because some portion of this applicant pool is accepted at a very high rate, the rate of acceptance for other students is impossible to determine. Apply ED if you are COMPLETELY sure that this one college is THE college for you AND you have the grades, scores, accomplishments, recommendations, and top quality essays ready in time.

Why not apply ED? Because this application is binding, do NOT apply ED if you are not 100% sure you will thrive at the selected college. There is fine print which will allow a student to get out of an ED commitment for financial reasons, but this path is rarely taken. Do NOT apply ED if you cannot afford to attend the college. Most colleges with ED options will require the CSS PROFILE form to also be submitted by the ED deadline. The PROFILE form is what these colleges have chosen to use to determine how they will allocate their institutional aid funds. ED colleges typically provide a preliminary financial aid package to accepted students. Additionally, if you need more time to re-take the SAT or ACT or want your fall semester grades to be considered, ED is not your best option. If you are applying without the help of a college consultant like myself, know that nearly all ED applicants are working with someone so you are at a disadvantage. They typically use tutors for test prep, too.

Admissions Options - RD

RD stands for regular decision. Most applicants choose RD. RD deadlines range from 12/1 to 6/1. While there is additional time to apply, deadlines must still be met and applications must be complete.

Why apply RD? Apply RD in order to include senior fall grades and test scores, to have more time to gather recommendations and to write and polish application essay(s). 

Why not apply RD? If you want to take advantage of higher acceptance rates and get the application process finished so you can enjoy the rest of your senior year, don't wait for RD deadlines. Please note that students can apply RD even before the EA or ED deadlines. RD applicants won't receive their decisions as quickly, but they will still receive them. (Every school has its own policy on when and how admissions decisions are made and communicated.)

Admissions Options - Rolling

Rolling Decision deadlines tend to be very late, often 7/1 or 8/1 or even the day before Fall semester classes begin. Don't be fooled, waiting that long will make getting in more difficult; as the admissions season progresses, fewer and fewer seats in the freshman class are available.

Why apply Rolling? If all else falls through, or "life happens" and you are only able to get your applications pulled together in late Spring of Senior year, then rolling decision schools will be a good choice for you.

Why not apply Rolling? Because you want to show colleges that you are prepared well ahead of time, are a strong prospective student for them, that you are serious about going to college, etc. (Not that students who apply late are not those things...)

Having options is a good thing. Understanding them and making well informed decisions and plans to use the options before you advantageously is very helpful as one seeks to accomplish one's goals in life. The prudent use of coaches, mentors, guides, etc. to help you select the majors, programs, and schools that are best suited to your learning style and personal and professional goals, as well to help you craft the best possible application possible is key. Email me at to request an initial consultation if you are an 8th - 11th grade student (or the parent of one) and you'd like to discuss your situation and the options for assistance as you move forward.