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Do You Know How to Evaluate Your Financial Aid Offers?

By Alicia, IvyWise MBA Admissions Counselor and Financial Aid Expert

For those who were accepted to your top-choice colleges, there is surely excitement, but there can also be uncertainly about where to enroll, especially when financial aid is a major concern. Navigating the financial aid process and making decisions based on your financial aid awards can be confusing, but it’s not unmanageable.

After decisions come in, the pressure is on students to make a decision on which school to attend. While many factors come into play, cost and how to pay for that education may become paramount once it’s time to make the commitment to attend a college for the next four years. It’s important for college-bound families to know how to read award letters and how to evaluate whether a college is good financial fit after aid has been awarded.

Here are some tips on how to read your financial aid award letters and advice on how to make informed decisions about where to attend based on your financial aid packages.

Award Letters
Make sure you read your award letters thoroughly, taking note of not only the amounts but also the types of funding you’ve been offered. You may receive a combination of grants, loans, and scholarships. Typically, scholarships are merit-based and originate with the admissions office. Grants are usually need-based and are awarded out of the financial aid office using the FAFSA and possibly other platforms like CSS Profile.

When you are comparing award letters from different schools, keep in mind that some schools will award loans up to your total cost of attendance with higher interest loans like the Parent PLUS loans, and some schools will not. If it looks like a school gave you more financial aid, be sure to tease out how much free money (grants, scholarships, stipends, tuition remission) you got in total from each school as compared to loans.

Another important detail to investigate is whether your awards are only for the first year, if they will renew from year to year and if you must/may apply again in future years.

Cost of Attendance
In order to truly compare the value of the schools you are looking at, you should take into account the cost to attend that institution. You should be provided with a detailed list of your billable and non-billable expenses, including tuition, fees, books, living costs, transportation and miscellaneous.

Living costs are especially important to consider, as those expenses can be significantly higher or lower depending on where you attend. You should consider this when evaluating which financial aid package is “better” for your wallet. For example, University A may have given you less grant money than University B, but the cost to live at University B is much higher than at University A. Don’t just look at the raw financial aid numbers – consider how far they actually stretch at each institution.

Follow Up
Just because you received an award letter doesn’t mean that you’re done with the financial aid process. Some schools may estimate funding because they may need more information from you or because they haven’t finalized the amounts they plan to offer.

Make sure the financial aid office isn’t waiting on any documents from you in order to guarantee your funding. In some cases, students can submit additional information that changes their eligibility for the previously offered funding. This is why it’s important to read the fine print on the award letter. If the financial aid office needs additional documents, make sure you get the requested materials to them as soon as possible so you have the most accurate, up-to-date picture of your financial options.

Appeal
In some cases it is possible to appeal for more financial aid. For example, if you received a better financial aid package from University A, but you really want to attend University B, you can sometimes appeal to University B to match or otherwise take into consideration that more attractive award letter that you were given from University A.

If you still need additional financial aid to help cover the cost of attendance, ask if they can reevaluate your award. Many schools have funding in place to assist students who have accepted all offered awards and still need assistance paying the remainder of the bill. Check to see if your school has a process like that, and make sure you know when they start reviewing those appeals because many are on a first-come first-served basis.

Ask
When you have questions, ASK. Be persistent to get the answers you need. Whenever possible, go to the financial aid office in person and get to know the people you’ll be working with for the next four years. If you can’t get to the financial aid office, make sure you find a way to connect with someone personally. For the most part, those of us who have chosen a career in financial aid are happy to answer your questions and spend whatever time you need to make the decision that is best for you and for your family.

As you navigate the financial aid process and evaluate your different aid packages, be sure that you feel that you fully understand the information and are comfortable enough to make an informed decision on which school is best. Your decision involves much more than just financial aid, but if you have done your due diligence on financial aid, you can be confident in your decisions and will prevent future unpleasant surprises.

If you need additional help evaluating your financial aid offers, contact us today for more information on our financial aid consultation services.

Best of luck in your decisions and congratulations to the class of 2021!

Read more about Alicia here.