Choosing the right college is a big, and sometimes difficult, decision. There are many factors to consider and a ton of information to sift through. To ease your mind on the cost question, let’s break down your financial aid offers.
In this guide, learn how to read and compare the college financial aid offers you receive.
What is a financial aid offer letter?
After you complete your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). Each school you applied to will use your SAR to evaluate your eligibility to receive financial assistance. Then, you will get a financial aid offer letter from the school. It is usually included with the admission acceptance letter.
The financial aid offer letter outlines the total price of attending that college or university and the various sources of funding you could access to pay for it. Those sources could include things like scholarships, grants, work-study, and student loan offers.
Read the letter carefully. Pay close attention to which aid is from scholarships or grants versus student loans, because you will need to pay back student loans upon graduating.
Compare your financial aid offer letters
You’ll get one financial aid offer letter from each school that accepts you. Then it will be time to compare them.
First, list the total price of each school. Then look at how much assistance each one offers — and, more importantly, what forms of assistance each offers.
Focus on grants and scholarships, because you don’t need to repay those. Anything else, such as a student loan, is considered an expense (even if it’s listed under financial aid). Although loans can help you pay for school now, they don’t eliminate your costs. They just spread out those costs over time and add interest; you’ll still need to pay the loans back after you graduate.
To determine how much a college will actually cost you out of pocket, subtract the amount of scholarships and grants from the total price. The remaining amount is what you need to cover through other means.
For instance, if School A’s price is $40,000 per year, and the college offers you a $10,000 grant and $30,000 in loans, your entire need for the year will be covered. But this is a loan-heavy offer that doesn’t reduce the actual cost.
On the other hand, if School B’s price is $50,000 a year, and they offer you $25,000 in grants and scholarships, $15,000 in loans, and $5,000 in a work-study program, you’ll be responsible for coming up with $5,000 on your own or with your family for the year.
Which is the better offer? Even though School B is more expensive and leaves a $5,000 out-of-pocket cost, you’d be borrowing half as much in loans as you would with School A.
Evaluate the loan offers in financial aid letters
In both examples, you may need to take out loans to meet your financial need. It’s critical that you understand specifically what to look for when comparing the loan options suggested in the financial aid award letters.
Look at whether the offer is for a federal student loan or if the school is suggesting that you or your parents take out a private loan. Federal loans typically have additional borrower benefits and more repayment options. Rates vary across both federal and private loan programs, so find the option that works best for you by talking to lenders as you are comparing your award letters.
You’ll want to look at the length of each loan term (most offer a 10-year repayment plan) and the interest rate of each.
The higher the interest rate, the more you’ll pay to borrow the money. You also want to find out if it’s a fixed-rate loan (all federal student loans and some private student loans have fixed rates) or a variable-rate loan (some private student loans).
Interest on fixed-rate loans won’t change (hence, “fixed”), but be prepared for the interest on variable-rate loans to increase before you have finished repaying them. (For more information on the types of loans you may use to pay for college, check out our handy video guide here.)
If the gap between what you need and what you have is small, you might want to consider setting up a tuition payment plan or take on a side gig to earn the additional amount. Be sure to ask yourself if there is a way to earn the money other than taking on debt.
While taking on debt to pay for college is common, don’t forget that you must pay back loans. Ideally, your total student loan debt shouldn’t exceed the salary you expect to earn in your first year of work after college. One way to estimate your potential salary is by taking a look at the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics website.
If you can, book a campus visit
Exact deadlines vary by school, but you should have a few weeks between getting the acceptance and financial aid offer letters and the deadlines for giving your answer.
If you’re still comparing your choices, campus visits (or re-visits) could be the final step in finding a good fit. An on-campus visit may not always be possible due to distance, timing, or budget, but if you can make final school visits happen, you’ll get valuable intel. Bonus: If your first visit was in the summer, visiting while spring classes are in session will feel more like the college life you’ll step into in the fall.
Check out the campus, from classrooms to dorm rooms and everything in between. You might also want to set up times to talk to current students and professors. Still have questions on classes and costs? Ask them in person at the admissions and financial aid offices.
Be curious about everyday spending, too. What are the prices like for off-campus meals? What will you spend for transportation? What local businesses hire students for part-time jobs, and how much do those jobs pay?
If you aren’t able to visit a campus in person, consider calling the college’s financial aid or admissions offices with any questions you have. Virtual campus visits can also be an awesome alternative to in-person visits.
Your financial aid offer might warrant an appeal
In some cases, there might be an opportunity to appeal financial aid offers with colleges. For example, you could appeal an award package if your personal or family financial situation has recently changed. Perhaps your parents’ income dropped, or your family’s house was in the path of a natural disaster. You could also appeal if you feel that the school is offering you less than it is offering other students with similar financial situations.
“The appeal process itself should be done in an orderly and professional manner. Be sure you can present a logical front with plenty of reasoning for your argument. Keep in mind that some schools have a no-change policy once an award package has been delivered, and any appeal will likely be unsuccessful,” explains Richard Sorensen, president of Falcon Management, which runs TFS Scholarships.
In other cases, you might see a gap between award offers from two schools, particularly in offer components based on your merit as a student. Perhaps a larger merit scholarship is being offered by your second-choice school. You could reach out to the financial aid office at your first-choice school and tell them that you want to accept their offer of admission if they can match or come closer to the merit award offer from their competitor. “In my opinion, students should definitely appeal — financial aid offices don’t like the word “negotiate” — their financial aid package under certain circumstances,” says Sorensen. (Get more of Sorensen’s tips on using scholarships to pay for college on CollegeSTEPS.)
Take your time reading and considering your financial aid offer letters and weighing them along with other information you’ve gathered. Make the right choice for yourself now — and for yourself after graduation.