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How to crunch the numbers


Once you've looked through your offers to separate the free money from the loans, you'll want to start looking at your bottom line. Take these steps for each school to give you a consistent view of each school's bottom line.

We recommend using a spreadsheet or online tool to help you make your comparisons. Check out our comprehensive financial aid comparison tool.

Step 1: Add Up Your Total College Costs 

These include not just the tuition and fees, but also room and board, transportation, books, and personal items for the year. This will give you a starting point. If the information isn’t listed in your offer, go online or call the financial aid office to ask for those figures.

add up your total college costs

Step 2: Subtract Your Total In "Free Money" 

Next, for each school add up the grants, scholarships, and merit aid—the free money that you don’t have to repay.

Then subtract this amount from the total cost of attendance (for one year) from Step 1.

Contact each school to clarify whether the grants and scholarships will automatically be renewed each year, or if you’ll need to reapply. (Note: Schools require you to fill out a new FAFSA each year you're in school.)

subtract your free money

Step 3: Calculate the Remaining Amount 

For each school, the balance between Step 1 and Step 2 is the amount you'll need for 1 year and is the amount you or your family will need to pay from available resources—including savings, current income, and loans. 

This balance is your bottom line for each school and the best way to compare affordability.

And remember, this is for 1 year of college. For your total cost, you'll need to multiply this figure by the number of years needed for your degree. 

calculate the remaining amount

Now that you've identified the net price for each school, you'll need to consider all of the factors that go into choosing the school that's best for your family's situation and your education goals.

NEXT: Weigh your options & make a decision >