Comparing Student Financial Aid Offers

For high school seniors, the time has come when to get out your magnifying glass and compare financial aid offer letters — NOT just the total amount of aid offered, but the specific details of each and every aid award offered! This article will highlight some important considerations when comparing these letters.

The Financial Aid Office will provide an “award letter” to eligible students. An award letter includes an offer of financial assistance which can come in the form of grants, scholarships, loans, and work programs. Be sure to keep in mind that grants and scholarships are free money and consequently the most sought-after financial aid option. The format of award letters may vary between colleges, however there is certain information that each award letter will have in common, all of which is important for realistically evaluating awards and arriving at a bottom line comparison. Award letters will include details on college tuition and fees and some will include details on the entire Cost of Attendance (COA). A central component of the financial aid award letter is a listing of the amounts of any financial aid programs that the student has been offered.

When receiving the award letter, you should review it very carefully and note the amount of financial aid awarded as well as the terms of each of the individual awards offered. Pay close attention to the Cost of Attendance (COA) and whether the student was awarded to full need, or if there is a gap in the funding.

Although grants and scholarships are free sources of financial aid and the most sought after type of aid, the reality is that loans are a big piece of the financial aid pie. Student loan terms vary greatly between loan programs, thus it is important to understand the type of loans that are being offered. Remember! Loans need to be paid back, thus it is important to understand the specific terms of each type of loan offered. Some colleges will include PLUS Loans (Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students) on the award letter, even though they are not a guaranteed source of aid until after a parent passes a credit check. It is very important to carefully review award letters to be sure you understand what you are being offered and the terms of each individual financial aid program.

Award letter totals may also vary greatly between colleges. Students may not receive equal amounts of financial aid or even the same mix of financial aid programs from all colleges. It is important to carefully review award letters and ask the financial aid office to clarify any details that are not clear. For example, if the student receives a scholarship, it would be important to know whether the scholarship aid is renewable each year, and if there is any specific renewal criteria attached to the scholarship. It’s important to know that each college sets its own qualifications and criteria for merit based aid and that scholarship levels vary greatly from one college to another. It is also essential to note that merit scholarships may or may not be renewable or their continuation may be based on maintaining a certain grade point average (GPA), so be sure to take note of the specific award criterion if receiving a merit award. When formulating an overall financial plan, it is important to understand the particulars of any merit awards. It would be a huge disappointment, and financial setback, if a student planned on a merit award for four years, and then found out that the merit aid was only available for the first year.

So the message here is that all aid programs are not equal. Be sure to review letters very carefully so that you are aware of what is being offered and the terms of each award. The award letter may list additional documents that are required for finalizing the financial aid award. Submit any requested documentation by the stated deadline so that your award can be finalized. Best of luck as you compare award letters in selecting your college of attendance.

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