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Financial aid offers: 4 steps before you sign

Written by
Emily Stetson

March 4, 2020


Financial aid offers: 4 steps before you sign

For families with a high school senior, this is when most college acceptances arrive in full force (congratulations!), and with them, financial aid offers. 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 that 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 offers (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. We want you to know more so you can borrow less. So before accepting financial aid offers (and buying college stickers for the car), follow these steps.

Step 1: Know what to look for.

The financial aid offers students receive from each school can vary widely, with different combinations of grants, scholarships, work-study, and other aid—including loans. Review each one carefully. VSAC has created a sample financial aid notification to help you decode all the parts of your offer.

Decode the “financial-aid-speak” at

Hear first-hand on VPR how one Vermont student is navigating college financial aid letters.

NOTE: If you haven’t yet applied for financial aid, fill out both the FAFSA and the Vermont state grant. You won't know what you're eligible for if you don't complete the forms. There's money for college or training—but you have to apply!

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 the info isn’t listed in your offer, 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. Clarify 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 funds.

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.

Tip: Make calculations easier by using VSAC’s Financial Aid Offer Comparison Tool to compare different offers.

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 at least part of the college bill through education loans.

Here's the thing: Because all loans are NOT created equal, it's important to research loan costs, understand what to consider as you choose a loan, and calculate the monthly payment for all the types of loans that you plan to take out. Your goal is to minimize student loan debt and the costs of borrowing.

Plan first to accept free aid (scholarships and grants) and work-study. Then stop! Don’t accept loans until you compare all your options. Visit to understand borrowing basics and download VSAC’s no-nonsense My Education Loans (PDF)  download  guide to for choosing education loans that best meet your family’s needs. 

Understand the total cost of what you'll owe over time for the full repayment of the loan, and be sure you can afford the monthly payments. You can find student loan calculators and other helpful resources at VSAC's financial aid & college costs page.

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

Have questions about your financial aid offer? 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 (1-833-802-VSAC) for help Monday through Friday, 8:00 am–4:30 pm, or schedule an appointment to talk with a financial aid counselor at our Resource Center in Winooski.

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.