A financial aid letter might look generous but actually come with costly caveats.
It’s crunch time for high school seniors: May 1 is College Decision Day, the day most college-bound students will let universities and colleges know whether they will be enrolling. For students agonizing over multiple offers, a big factor in choices will (or should be) financial aid. After all, the less you borrow as a student, the less student loan debt you’ll have to repay after college.
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But those financial aid letters students have received can be confusing at best, and downright deceptive at worst. One parent told me about the worst one her daughter received: “It showed the parents’ out-of-pocket cost after the small award, plus the maximum federal student loan, plus a big Parent PLUS loan … and it looked so reasonable,” she said. Her daughter didn’t fully understand that it would mean a big chunk of debt for both the parents and the student to repay after college.
1. Loans in Disguise
Financial aid awards will often lump loans together with grants and scholarships and sometimes may not even use the word “loan” to describe money that will be borrowed. But a loan is a much different animal than grants and scholarships that don’t have to be repaid. “When I hear colleges talk about how loans make school more affordable, it’s misleading,” says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president Edvisors.com, which offers free tools to help plan and pay for college. “Loans really provide cash-flow assistance,” he explains. It’s not free money, even if it feels that way. “In most cases loans increase costs because they charge interest,” he says.
Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a higher education expert who teaches parents how to cut the cost of college at TheCollegeSolution.com, is especially concerned about parent loans listed as aid. “They’ll stuff a big Parent PLUS loan in there, but they shouldn’t even be in financial aid letters,” she insists. Interest rates are high, and any parent can apply for one. “Be careful if a big chunk of your award letter is a Parent PLUS loan,” she says.
2. Front-Loaded Grants
Grants and scholarships may make the first year look affordable, but that equation can change in subsequent years. How do you know if a school “front-loads” grants? It can be hard to tell, admits Kantrowitz. One approach is to ask the financial aid administrator what will be required to renew the awards in subsequent years. He also suggests using the government’s College Navigator website which lists average grants for the first year and all other years for each school. “It’s not perfect,” he says. But if you see a substantial decrease after the first year, that can be a red flag.
3. Missing Costs
If you simply compare tuition costs, you’ll likely be missing some key items, including room and board, meal plans, travel, books and “other” fees (a category that can rival a cellphone or cable bill in the number of add-ons). Be sure essential costs are listed and try to make sure they are realistic, Kantrowitz warns. “Some have a textbook allowance of $250 and in some courses a single textbook can be $250,” he says. When aid letters don’t list the total cost of attending that institution, awards may seem more generous than they really are.
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