If you submitted financial aid applications (FAFSA and possibly the CSS Profile) along with college applications, then acceptances may come with financial aid awards. Sometimes colleges mail an actual letter, but they might also be in a section of the student’s application portal for each college. Financial aid includes grants (gift aid that doesn’t have to be paid back), work study (money paid to a student because they work in a campus job associated with a work study program), and loans (that have to be paid back with interest after leaving college).
Understanding financial aid award letters can be tricky. Formats vary wildly from one college to another. In particular, loans which might not be clearly labeled. You might see terms like “Fed Sub,” “Unsub,” or “Parent Plus” instead.
It’s easy to get excited about a college that awards a $20,000 tuition discount, while ignoring that they are $30,000 more expensive than other colleges on your list. Compare the final net cost, not the discount amount. Here are a few resources that can help you determine if a college is a good financial fit.
Compare Financial Aid Awards
Financial Aid Shopping Sheet This fillable form allows you to input data from each financial aid offers into a standard format. This one is from the state of New Jersey. I like it because it helps you total up both direct and indirect costs that could be very different depending on the colleges you’re comparing. For example, transportation might include public transportation, a car (plus gas, insurance, and parking), or plane fare. You should fill out a sheet like this for each college you’re comparing. Remember that these are annual costs, if students at one college take 5-6 years to graduate, include that in your comparison too.
Financial Path to Graduation This government site walks families through a series of questions to determine the cost of attendance vs different types of aid offered. A couple helpful features of this tool are that it asks about other resources for paying for college, like 529 plans or state grants. It also clearly includes the cost of loans (both interest and fees) and helps you visualize student debt at graduation and the estimated total cost of student loans. It even pulls in graduation rate, average income, and loan default info to help you decide if each college is a good option.
Appealing Financial Aid Offers
Financial aid awards are not written in stone. It’s possible to appeal financial aid offers, especially if you think the FAFSA missed nuances in your family’s financial situation. Families may struggle with writing an appeal letter that is clear and compelling. Some colleges have their own appeal application or form. If yours doesn’t the Swift Student online tool has a series of prompts to help you put the facts together in way that financial aid offices will understand and consider acting on. Swift Student has many templates to cover specific situations, like a changed financial situation, unusual expenses, or emergency costs.
College financial aid offices can override financial aid awards through “professional judgement.” But what situations would be worth appealing and what documentation would be compelling. This set of Professional Judgement Tip Sheets helps college financial aid officers weigh appeal requests. They include case studies that can help you understand what might form the basis of an appeal and what information may be asked for.
Financial Fit Matters
For most families, cost is just as important for college fit as size, location, and academic programs. Make sure you understand the financial aid award and what it would actually cost to attend each college. It’s OK to decide that a school isn’t a viable choice based on the total cost (even if it’s a popular or selective college).