Evaluating and Comparing Financial Aid Award Letters

By now students have received college acceptance letters and are weighing each school’s pros and cons prior to the May 1 deposit deadline. As the cost of attendance is an important consideration for most families, it is a good idea to scrutinize financial aid award letters. These letters list different types of financial awards that include need-based aid, merit-based scholarships, work study, and various types of loans. Aid is offered from multiple sources and the information provided may differ from college to college. The amount of aid awarded is intended to help fill the gap between the estimated family contribution (EFC) and the costs of attendance. The following are a few definitions and guidelines to assist with evaluating and comparing award letters:

>Various costs of attendance may or not be included in the letter. Full costs of attendance include tuition, fees, room, board, books, supplies, activity expenses, travel expenses, transportation costs, health insurance, computer and phone costs, and personal expenses. Read the fine print in the letter and understand which costs are included or excluded.

> Free money, if offered, may include grants, scholarships, and waivers for tuition or housing. Check to see if gift aid is front-loaded, meaning the aid amount may decrease in subsequent years. Understand the terms of grants or scholarships and find out if these amounts could change if financial circumstances change. Some aid or scholarship renewals depend on a student’s grades and/or number of credit hours taken. If a student wins a non-institutional scholarship, financial awards from the college may be reduced.

>If awarded work study funds, keep in mind that the work is not guaranteed, nor are the hours or pay; work study funding is paid as it is earned. If a student works fewer hours, he will earn less money.

>Loans are listed in the financial award letter, but they must be repaid with interest. Various loans are designed for different circumstances. Possibilities include the Federal Perkins Loan, Federal Stafford Loans, and subsidized Stafford loans. Federal Plus Loans are designed for eligible parents or graduate students.  Colleges also offer loans, and, of course, there are private lenders. Students are not required to borrow from any lenders that may be listed; they may seek funds elsewhere.

Depending on the circumstances, it may be possible to appeal a financial award. Some schools concerned with enrollment numbers may reconsider merit awards, especially if the student has received a higher scholarship elsewhere. If a family is faced with unforeseen situations such as medical bills, or the loss of employment, a school may increase aid.

It is important to fully understand the terms of each award in the letter; call the financial aid office with questions or to seek clarification.

Ferah Aziz is a college coach with launchphase2. Visit www.launchphase2.com/ to learn more about coaching for college bound & college attending students. P. Carol Jones is the author of “Toward College Success: Is Your Teenager Ready, Willing, and Able.” Visit www.towardcollegesuccess.com to read excerpts and to follow her blog.