|I've been accepted at several colleges.
Compare apples to apples
Now that you know the real cost of college, get ready to compare
aid offers. Financial aid packages consist of three basic types
of awards -- awards you'll have to pay back (including subsidized
and unsubsidized loans), gift aid you won't have to pay back (including
federal and private, need- and merit-based scholarships and grants),
and awards you'll have to work for, such as work-study positions.
Marie Mons, director of student
financial planning and services for the Georgia Institute of Technology
in Atlanta, urges students to consider the type of aid offered and
whether the award is renewable rather than the size of the financial
"When folks open up their
award letters, their eyes tend to go first to the bottom line, but
it's important to understand each of the components," she says.
"A $15,000 loan from one school actually may be better than
a $2,000 scholarship from another school."
By carefully examining what type of aid is offered,
you'll be able to see that a $10,000 scholarship from an expensive
school might look good in print, but could leave you significantly
more in debt than a $5,000 scholarship from a cheaper college. Likewise,
a $6,000 one-time grant from one school might boost your bank account
during your freshman year, but might not help you pay for all four
years in the same way that a $20,000 loan from another school would.
To make sure you're comparing apples to apples, Mons
encourages students to look at their aid awards in the context of
the cost of a four-year education at that school. That means calculating
each school's total, four-year cost of attendance, including tuition
inflation, then subtracting the amount of gift aid offered over
the four-year period. Once you know what you'll be expected to pay
for each school, you'll be able to compare loan and work-study offers
and see who's really offering you the best deal. If you need some
number-crunching assistance, Collegeanswer.com offers a free financial
aid award analyzer that can help you understand how your schools
of choice stack up.
Plan for the worst (and the
Erin Korsvall, spokeswoman for Sallie Mae, recommends that prospective
students ask the school's financial aid officer about how the aid
package will be impacted by an unexpected change in cash flow before
officially accepting an offer. Since all need-based aid is directly
tied to your family's financial circumstances, clarifying whether
your school offers emergency financial aid in the event of a cash
crisis can save you time and stress down the road.
Deffenbaugh says that it's also useful to know how
your aid package can be impacted in case of an unexpected cash bonus.
Because federal need-based aid is directly impacted by private grants
or scholarships won, any additional aid you might win during your
sophomore, junior or senior years could subtract from your annual
check from Uncle Sam. While the school has no control over the fact
that your aid award will be impacted by extra scholarships and grants,
Deffenbaugh reports that financial aid officers do have some control
over what type of aid is affected, so make sure you ask before you
"If the student's demonstrated financial need
is being met and then they win an additional scholarship, their
aid package will be affected," she says. "Most schools
will use it to affect need-based loans rather than need-based grants
so that the student benefits, but that's a question for the financial
To avoid any unpleasant financial aid surprises, it's
best to read the fine print, ask tons of questions and keep life
after college in mind when sizing up your offers.