Financial aid awards: 4 steps before you sign

Written by
Emily Stetson

March 9, 2018


Financial aid awards: 4 steps before you sign

For families with a high school senior, this is the month college acceptances arrive in full force (congratulations!), and with them, financial aid notifications. It’s an exciting time, and—let’s face it—also a bit overwhelming as deadlines loom: Most colleges require a deposit by May 1. That means during April, families need to do math calculations and make some smart—and sometimes tough—decisions about which school is the best fit.

To help you interpret those financial aid awards (and take some of the stress out of the process), we’ve broken it down for you so you can better compare all your options and make informed choices. Before accepting financial aid award offers (and buying college stickers for the car), follow these steps.

Step 1: Know what to look for.

The financial aid awards students receive from each school can vary widely, with different combinations of grants, scholarships, work-study, and other aid. Review each one carefully. VSAC has created a sample award letter to help you decode all the parts of your award. (Haven’t yet applied for financial aid? Do both the FAFSA and the Vermont state grant. Don’t miss out on getting money for college!)

Do it: Decode the “financial-aid-speak” at

Step 2. Crunch the numbers.

Add up your total college costs—not just the tuition and fees, but room and board, transportation, books, and personal items throughout the year. This is the best way to get an accurate idea of what that school will cost. (If that info isn’t listed in your award, go online or call the financial aid office to ask for those figures.)

Subtract your total in grants and scholarships. These are gift aid—funds you don’t have to repay. Also find out whether the grants and scholarships will be renewed each year, or if you’ll need to reapply. If you’ve received work-study (money you earn by working at a campus job), you may also be able to subtract those dollars from your costs, depending on how your school handles those awards.

Calculate the remaining amount. That’s what you’ll need to pay for one year of college. Multiply this figure by the number of years needed for your degree.

Do it: Make calculations easier. Use VSAC’s online spreadsheet tool to compare different award packages.

Step 3. Consider the costs & get the facts.

Once you know the amount of money you’ll need, think about how you’ll meet those costs. If you don’t have that amount in savings, you aren’t alone: Nearly two-thirds of Vermont families meet part of the college bill through education loans.

Do it: Plan to first accept free aid (scholarships and grants) and work-study. Then stop! Don’t accept loans until you compare all your options. VSAC’s no-nonsense My Education Loans (PDF)  download  guide is a must-read primer for learning how to choose loans that best meet your family’s needs

Step 4. Reach out for help to make your decision.

Have questions about your financial aid award? Contact the college’s financial aid office for specifics. Or contact VSAC — as Vermont’s nonprofit higher education resource for students, we’re here to answer your questions. To speak to a counselor, call us at 1-833-802-8722 for help Monday through Friday, 8:00 am–4:30 pm, or call us at 800-642-3177 to schedule an appointment to talk with a financial aid counselor from 10:00 am–3:00 pm at our Resource Center in Winooski.

Do it: In the end, you’ll want to choose the school that will give you the best educational experience with the lowest debt. Learning what you need to know—before you sign on the dotted line—will go a long way toward making the choice that’s best for you and your family. Visit for more on the financial aid process and making your college choice.