FAFSA Simplified Needs Test vs. Auto-Zero EFC

The FAFSA offers two options for low-income applicants. Learn more about the simplified needs test and the auto-zero EFC option.

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by Genevieve Carlton, Ph.D.

Published September 7, 2022

Reviewed by Andy Buchanan

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FAFSA Simplified Needs Test vs. Auto-Zero EFC
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Most college students apply for financial aid. And filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be confusing. But two options make the FAFSA simpler for low-income applicants: the simplified needs test and the auto-zero expected family contribution (EFC).

Students with an adjusted gross income of $50,000 or less may qualify for these options. With both options, applicants do not need to answer complicated questions about their assets. And the auto-zero EFC helps applicants maximize their need-based financial aid.

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Auto-Zero Expected Family Contribution

Students with a low household income may qualify for an automatic assignment of zero for their expected family contribution. This allows students to receive the maximum amount of federal financial aid.

What Is Auto-Zero EFC?

The FAFSA calculates each applicant's EFC. However, the auto-zero EFC will automatically set your expected contribution at zero.

What does that mean for students? When colleges create financial aid packages, they will not expect the student's household to contribute toward the cost of attendance. That means students with an auto-zero EFC will receive more need-based federal financial aid. This includes Pell Grant funding.

Only certain applicants qualify for an auto-zero EFC. First, applicants must meet the simplified needs test guidelines. Next, they must meet income eligibility requirements.

Who Qualifies for Auto-Zero EFC?

Applicants with an adjusted gross income of $27,000 or less qualify for the auto-zero EFC, according to a 2021 report from the Congressional Research Service. This includes both dependent undergraduate students and independent undergrads who have dependents. Independent students with no dependents do not qualify for an auto-zero EFC.

Dependent students' families' income must be $27,000 or less for an applicant to qualify. Independent students with incomes of $27,000 or less qualify. This includes spousal income in the case of married independent students.

Applicants may also qualify for a zero EFC based on the FAFSA formula. Only students who meet the auto-zero EFC guidelines will automatically receive a zero for their expected contribution.

Simplified Needs Test

Students who qualify for the simplified needs test do not need to answer questions about family assets. This simplifies the FAFSA process.

What Is the Simplified Needs Test?

The FAFSA determines the expected family contribution by applying a formula that considers income, assets, and other financial information. The simplified needs test uses a more basic formula that requires fewer questions on the FAFSA.

Applicants who qualify for the simplified needs test do not provide information on assets. And the simplified needs test formula calculates the EFC without asset information. Under this formula, applicants may still qualify for a zero on their EFC.

Like the auto-zero EFC, applicants must meet certain guidelines for the simplified needs test.

Who Qualifies for the Simplified Needs Test?

All FAFSA applicants qualify for the simplified needs test if their household adjusted gross income is $50,000 or less. This includes dependent and independent students.

After meeting income eligibility requirements, applicants must meet at least one of the following additional requirements:

The means-tested qualification includes SNAP benefits, free or reduced-price school lunches, TANF benefits, the WIC program, and Medicaid.

In some circumstances, FAFSA applicants must provide asset and income information even if they qualify for the simplified needs test or an auto-zero EFC. For example, some states require asset and income data for state financial aid. And some schools also require answers to these questions.

Frequently Asked Questions About the Simplified Needs Test and Auto-Zero EFC

What is an auto-zero EFC?

The FAFSA assigns an auto-zero EFC to students who report $27,000 or less in income. Eligible applicants are not expected to contribute financially to their college expenses. Only certain groups qualify. Dependent students qualify based on parental or guardian financial information. Independent students with dependents also qualify based on household income. Independent students with no dependents do not qualify. Even applicants who do not qualify for an automatic zero EFC can still receive a zero on their EFC based on the FAFSA formula.

How do I get my EFC to zero?

Applicants can achieve an expected family contribution of zero on the FAFSA in several ways. First, dependent students and independent students with dependents can receive an auto-zero EFC if their household income is $27,000 or less. Second, applicants with a higher household income may still receive an EFC of zero based on the FAFSA formula. Those with a household income of $50,000 or less qualify for the simplified needs test formula, which can also determine an EFC of zero.

What is the simplified needs test?

The simplified needs test simplifies the FAFSA process. For applicants with a household income of $50,000 or less, the FAFSA offers a simplified option. Applicants do not need to provide asset information. Instead, the FAFSA calculates the EFC based on income rather than assets. While the FAFSA waives asset questions for applicants who meet the requirements, students may still need to answer those questions to qualify for state and institutional financial aid.

Who qualifies for the simplified needs test on FAFSA?

Applicants with a household income of $50,000 or less may qualify for the simplified needs test. In addition to meeting income eligibility requirements, applicants or their parents or guardians must also meet one of the following requirements: they either filed a 1040A or 1040EZ tax form or were not required to file a tax form; they qualify as a dislocated worker; or they qualified for a means-tested benefit in the past two years.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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