Financial Aid: What to expect and how to interpret your offers

Written by
Emily Stetson

March 22, 2023


Spring officially arrived this week, and with the warmer weather coming, families with a high school senior have another transition ahead: Students are considering their options and making decisions about what’s next. This could include enrolling in a training program, taking a gap year, heading directly into the workforce, or going to college. And for students in the “undecided” zone, this is a good time to explore your options. Life after high school has many paths to choose from.

High school seniors who take the college route may be anxiously awaiting an acceptance offer or may have already received one. How to decide? You’ll want to compare all your offers of financial aid before committing to one school. Because many colleges expect a deposit for the coming school year by May 1, this time of year includes some tough thinking. (Trust us, we’ve been there.)

So, pause, take a deep breath, and read on for some practical tips to help you examine and compare the offers you receive.  

Financial aid offers are a one-year snapshot of aid that the student will receive.

The financial aid offers you’ll be receiving from each school can vary widely. Some may send you an official letter (not to be confused with the admissions acceptance letter). More often, you’ll receive an email with instructions for how to login to view the financial aid package through the school’s online portal. Regardless of how it’s sent, this 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.

First, learn the lingo. 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.

Our goal is to help you understand these differences as you compare your choices. 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.

Wondering where to start? Consider these questions as you look at each offer.

  1. What is the full cost to attend this school?
  2. Does my offer include grant and scholarship money?
  3. Does my offer include loans that will need to be paid back? And what types?
  4. Does my offer include federal work-study?
  5. Is the money offered for only one year, or for multiple years?

Tip: Track the offer details for each school as you review. You can use a simple paper/pen approach or use 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 are not listed in your offer, 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. This is important! 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 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.   

Identify 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. (Yup, more jargon.) Simply put, 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. Most families are relieved to hear that 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.

Another type of loan that may be listed is 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. The amount of the loan may be for the cost of attendance minus student financial aid.

Tip: Parents, 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 can accept all free aid first, then wait to decide about which loans and how much you want to borrow.

Need guidance? VSAC’s My Education Loans guide was written to help you learn more about federal and nonfederal loans, how interest accrues, how to minimize your loan costs, and what you will need to pay back.

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.

What’s next? Get all the information you need to make a decision.

In the end, you’ll want to choose the school that fits your needs. Using online tools, asking questions, and learning what you need to know about loans—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, email us at, or give us a call at 833-802-8722 (833-802-VSAC).