How to Assess Financial Aid Packages

This time of year is exciting for high school seniors as they get their acceptance letters from college and make the final decision of where to go. The stress comes when deciding if the financial aid package the school offers is enough to cover the full cost of attendance.

A financial aid offer comes shortly after or with the acceptance letter. Don?t immediately jump to the most extensive package, because it may include loans that will send you spiraling into debt. Take the time to sit down and carefully consider each package one line at a time. You might also consider asking the school if they would be willing to offer more financial aid in exchange for your attendance.

Take these steps when analyzing your financial aid offers:

1. Look at all the options in the offer
Establish the cost of attendance for each school you?re considering attending. The school may include the estimated cost of attendance with the financial aid package, or you might have to check their website to get the facts and figures. The total cost of attendance includes books, supplies, health insurance, fees, and travel expenses. The best way to compare offers is in a spreadsheet, so you have a side-by-side view. 

2. Read the terms and conditions
Understand the difference between grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study. Scholarships and grants are free money, while work-study requires you to get a job and loans must be paid back when you graduate. All loans are not created equal. Some are for parents or require a credit check to get approved. Some loans incur interest while you?re in school, while others defer it until after you graduate. Don?t forget that you?ll attend for four years, so verify that the financial aid is enough to every year, not just the current one.

3. Abide by deadlines
Mark deadlines on the calendar and do not miss them if you genuinely want to attend somewhere. You need to make your decision and send a deposit in by the date of your letter, or you risk losing your spot. Consider whether losing your deposit is worth it if you?re still waiting for an offer from your choice school.

4. Negotiate
If your financial situation has changed since you first filled out the FAFSA or another school has offered you significantly more aid, you can use this to try to get a better deal from your chosen school. It never hurts to pick up the phone and ask what options are available to you before deciding you can?t afford to attend your preferred school.

Be honest as a parent about what you can realistically afford when it comes to your child?s college education. Encourage them to apply for scholarships to put towards the cost. If you?re a student, don?t be discouraged if you can?t go to your first-choice school. Your education experience is what you put into it regardless of where you attend.