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How to Compare College Financial Aid Letters and Choose the Right School

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It’s that time of year. College admissions decisions are arriving and the award letters are either with them or will follow shortly. For most students who have applied to multiple colleges, comparing those award letters are a crucial part of making the final college choice. Unless your parents will be footing the bill for your entire education, those awards will help determine which college will best meet your family’s financial needs.

So, first things first.

Use this tool from The College Board to compare the awards of up to four schools. You can enter all the information from each college’s award letter and then calculate the awards and compare the percentages of each as it pertains to the EFC (Expected Family Contribution).

After comparing the awards, there are some other factors to consider as you choose a college.

Will you be going into debt if you accept an award package?

If you accept the college’s offer of admission along with their financial aid package will you be going into debt to attend? Is the bulk of the award made up of loans that will have to be repaid? Is the college meeting all of your financial need or are they gapping you? Quite simply, is the college offering enough aid to cover the difference between the cost of college attendance and your EFC?

Is the college offering the most money the best fit?

It’s important to evaluate all offers based on fit. A college offering a full-ride scholarship might not be the best fit for you over one that has added some college loans into the package. Only you can decide that for yourself as you and your parents discuss the financial aspects of the offer. Accepting a full-ride to a college that isn’t a good fit is going to end badly because you won’t be happy and no amount of money in the world can buy happiness.

Is this a one-time award or will it carry through your four years of college?

Colleges often use a tactic called “front-loading” to lure students to accept their offer of admission. This happens when colleges make their most generous financial aid award offers to applicants as a lure to attend. When students return the following year they may find their school has dropped their previously awarded grants and scholarships. Ask these questions:

    • Is the grant/scholarship renewable and if so for how many years? Find out the maximum number of times the award will be made.

    • What are the strings attached to keeping the grant/scholarship? Find out the eligibility requirements each year including any additional paperwork necessary to keep them.

    • If the grant/scholarship is lost, what will replace it? Often student loans are the college’s substitution plan.

    • Will the college bill increase in following years and if so, by how much? Those renewable grants/scholarships may no longer cover the same portion of college costs if tuition rises.

    • Will the grant/scholarship be increased to keep pace with any raised college costs? Be aware most colleges will not match tuition increases or increase free money aid when tuition rates increase.

How do you compare college ROI and make the best choice?

The ROI, or return on investment, should be considered before you decide to foot the bill for college. Find out what the starting salary of a graduate with your degree is and compare it to the amount of money you pay (apart from grants and scholarships) and evaluate whether or not the investment is worth the cost. Check out this list of 2015 bachelor degree salaries

from the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

What can you do if the award is not what you need?

If you’re bummed about your financial aid award don’t despair. If have award money from someplace else, approach your dream college and ask them to match it. You can also appeal an award by asking the college for more money. Many times a college will be agreeable to increasing the award if you simply ask.

Which aid should you accept?

Remember that you don’t have to accept every component of the award just because it’s offered. Choose the grants and scholarships first, then evaluate the rest of the award package by using this chart created by StudentAid.ed.gov.

Comparing the award letters is a delicate process. Take your time, evaluate the numbers and the fit of each college, then make your final college choice.

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