Usually the first question families have after their kid learns they were admitted to a college is: How much will this cost? Unfortunately, there is no uniform format for delivering financial aid offers. And some colleges have confusing ways of labeling grants, scholarships, and loans. So understanding college financial aid offers takes time and attention to detail.
If you submitted financial aid applications (FAFSA and possibly the CSS Profile) along with college applications, then financial aid offers might be delivered along with the offer of admission. Some colleges mail an actual letter, but it’s just as likely that the student will need to find the financial aid section of the student portal for each college they are admitted to.
Types of Financial Aid
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).
“Scholarships” are grants that might be based on demonstrated financial need or on non-need based factors like grades, test scores, and personal qualities. It’s even a common practice for colleges to label a tuition discount designed to encourage enrollment as a scholarship because it sounds better. Scholarships may have renewal requirements like a certain semester GPA or volunteer hours.
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.
FAFSA and CSS Profile
There are two applications for financial aid. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the form required for federal financial aid, including loans, work study, and Pell Grants. FAFSA is also used by many colleges to determine eligibility for need-based aid from the institution. In addition states and even scholarships may use it to allocated money.
FAFSA is free to submit and uses prior-prior income information, meaning that aid for the 2024-25 academic year is based on income from 2022. FAFSA underwent a major revision including a new application format for the 2024-25 application, so make sure you use the most up to date guides when filling it out.
CSS Profile is an additional financial aid application typically used by colleges with large endowments that offer significant need-based financial aid. There is a fee for submitting this application and it uses its own formula for determining eligibility. It probes deeper into a family’s financial situation, but is still worth filling out if you want need-based aid from colleges that use CSS Profile.
Related: FAFSA Tips 2024-25
Compare College Financial Aid Offers
Financial Aid Shopping Sheet This fillable form allows you to input data from each financial aid offer 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. You could use the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet as a basis for creating your own spreadsheet if you want to have a side by side view. 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. 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 College 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 require a specific form, the Swift Student online tool has a series of prompts to help you put the facts together in a 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 judgment.” But what situations would be worth appealing and what documentation would be compelling. This set of Professional Judgment 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.
Related Article: Guide to FAFSA
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).