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College Decisions: What you need to know to compare your offers
April, besides being tax time, is highlighted as National Financial Literacy Month. For families with a high school senior, that takes on a special meaning, as it’s also when students are making decisions about what’s next … with cost often a primary consideration driving their choices. Options could include enrolling in a training program, taking a gap year, heading directly into the workforce, or going directly to college.
High school seniors who take the college route may be wondering, “How do I decide what school to go to?” Part of that process means adding up what it will cost. You’ll want to compare all your offers of financial aid before committing to your final choice by May 1, when a deposit for the coming year is generally expected. It’s a lot to think about.
So, before you put the college stickers on the car, follow these steps to help you examine and compare the offers you receive.
Understand what’s offered … and what’s not.
The financial aid offers you’ll be receiving from each school can vary widely. Some may send you an official letter; others email instructions for how to login to view the financial aid package through the school’s online portal. Regardless of how it’s sent, a financial aid offer details the money that the school can provide to the student based on the student’s FAFSA and other financial aid applications required by that school for that year. You’ll need to complete financial aid applications annually for each year that you are enrolled.
The vocabulary used on the financial aid offer may differ at each school. In fact, even what schools call their financial aid proposal can go by various names. Some call them “awards” and others refer to them as “offers” or “packages.” The thing to know is that each one outlines what that school is offering you in the way of aid. Some of that aid may be free, as in “gift aid” from grants or scholarships. Other aid requires you to pay it back, in the form of a loan.
Check our list of words to look for, contact each school’s financial aid office if you have any questions along the way, or call us at VSAC. We can help you navigate the process.
As you look at each offer, consider these questions:
- What is the full cost to attend this school?
- Does my offer include grant and scholarship money?
- Does my offer include loans that will need to be paid back? What types of loans are offered?
- Does my offer include federal work-study?
- Is the money offered for only one year, or for multiple years?
Track the offer details for each school, using a simple paper/pen approach or a spreadsheet tool.
Calculate the total cost of attendance. A financial aid package will include the total cost of attending that institution. This includes tuition and fees, room and board, transportation, books, and personal items for the full academic year. You may need to add up different sections to get a complete picture, or the total cost may be clearly outlined. If supporting costs and fees aren’t listed, search for the costs online or call the financial aid office at the college to ask for those figures.
Identify any grant and scholarship money. Grants and scholarships are free money that doesn’t have to be repaid. The money can be based on financial need or merit (academic or interests), and typically comes from three sources: federal, state, and institutional (college) money. Make sure your offer includes any state grant funds that you may be eligible for. Some colleges may not include state grants on their financial aid offer because the school is unaware that you applied for those funds. And some colleges may include an estimate, even if you haven’t yet applied for state grants. If you don’t see a state grant, or if you see an estimate, verify that you’ve completed the necessary applications by visiting your state agency site. Residents of Vermont should visit vsac.org/grants to apply or check an existing application.
Were you awarded scholarship money from non-college sources, such as local and private organizations? Contact your school’s financial aid office for specific information on how your school treats scholarships. Some schools may reduce the amount of loans you need to borrow, while others may reduce the amount of grant assistance.
A word on work study. The FAFSA application includes a checkbox to ask if the student would like to be considered for work study. If the student is eligible, this is money that can be earned by working at a campus job. It does require the student to apply for a job. Not sure if this is for you? Watch this 1-minute video.
Look closely at all loans. Almost every financial aid offer will include loans. Since a loan is money that must be repaid, it’s important to question any language that is not followed by the word “grant.” It’s not uncommon for a family to think that the college is covering the full cost to attend, only to learn later that a large portion of the financial aid offer is covered by loans.
Students will be eligible to receive federal Direct student loans. There are two types: subsidized and unsubsidized. (More jargon!) A subsidized loan is offered to students with greater financial need, and the federal government covers the interest that accrues (adds up) while the student is in school. An unsubsidized loan is available for all students regardless of financial need, and interest starts accruing once the funds are disbursed to the school. Students are not required to make payments on these loans while in school at least half time.
VSAC recommends that you first accept those two types of federal Direct loans if you need to borrow.
Does your offer list a federal Direct PLUS loan? These loans are different than the subsidized and unsubsidized federal Direct loans for students. PLUS loans are taken out in a parent's name, or another adult who is helping to pay for college. Graduate students are also eligible for PLUS loans.
Tip: It’s your choice whether or not to borrow some or all of the loan amount offered. You may also be offered other loans, such as institutional loans from the college. Compare all your financing options—including those not noted on your offer—before agreeing to any loan. You may want to accept all free aid first, then wait to decide about which loans and how much you want to borrow.
Need some guidance? VSAC’s My Education Loans guide was written to help you learn more about federal and nonfederal loans, how interest works, how to minimize your loan costs, and what you will need to pay back. We give you the whole picture, so you can make informed choices.
Bottom line: Get all the information you need to make a decision.
- Reach out to each college with any outstanding questions.
- Read how to appeal your financial aid offer if you’re in a situation where your financial circumstances have changed since you filed your FAFSA.
- Calculate the total amount you'll need to pay for any school you are considering.
In the end, you’ll want to choose the school that fits your needs. Asking questions and learning what you need to know—before you sign on the dotted line—will help you make the choice that’s best for you and your family.
VSAC is here to help guide you, whatever your education goals. For more on financial aid and planning for college or training expenses, go to vsac.org, email us at email@example.com, or give us a call at 833-802-8722 (833-802-VSAC).