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How do I compare financial aid award packages from different colleges?

Your official offer of a financial aid award package will come in the form of an award letter or notice after you have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). While you can apply for financial aid before you complete admission applications, schools may not make an official offer of aid until you are accepted for enrollment (some schools also use the Web to provide notices after your freshman year in college). If you are curious what your federal aid package might look like, you can view information on Colorado colleges by using the Financial Aid Award Estimator and selecting a school of choice.

Once you receive your award letter or notice, be sure to pay close attention to the offer, as well as to what you must do to accept the offer. The award letter will likely contain different types of financial aid combined into a financial aid package and will be for a specific period of enrollment and enrollment status (full- or half-time for example). Your package may contain scholarships, grants, work study or student loans - any of the categories of financial aid. Review a sample award letter to see what awards amounts look like and use an Award Letter Comparison worksheet to compare the awards you receive from your colleges.

Be sure to notice whether you must sign and return your award notice to accept the aid. Note that many schools do not require a special acceptance for scholarships and grants (students rarely turn down these types of gift aid). For offers that include work-study and student or parent loans, you may have to explicitly accept them. Signing a promissory note will be required for student and parent loans. If you change your enrollment plans, the financial aid package will most likely have to be revised.

Not all schools include PLUS loans for parents of dependent students in the award letter and financial aid package. Some schools do not include Federal Direct student loan(s) in the letter. Even though you may not see these loans on your award letter, it does not necessarily mean that you are ineligible for them. You may have to apply separately for a determination of eligibility. Contact the financial aid office if you have questions regarding your eligibility for these loans.

The award letter usually identifies the cost of attendance (COA) and expected family contribution (EFC) used to determine your eligibility. The cost of attendance not only includes school charges (tuition, fees and room and board if you live on campus in a residence hall), but it also includes books, supplies and related living expenses while attending school. Expected family contribution is the amount a student and his or her family may reasonably be expected to contribute toward the cost of attending college that year.

Your bill from the school will list all school charges and usually will also indicate what financial aid has been or will be credited. Wait for the bill and pay only the difference between this credit and the school's charges. Contact the school if you do not receive a bill and school is about to start or if you have accepted the financial aid package but the aid is not reflected correctly on the bill.

Ask yourself these questions when evaluating financial aid offers:

  • With the aid offered to me, can I afford to attend my first choice college or university? Remember, the goal of aid is to provide access and choice, not to lure you to a college you don't really want to attend.
  • Is there a commitment from the financial aid office to continue the aid after the first year of college? Under what terms and conditions?
  • Is the loan or work required reasonable? Can I afford the payments once I have graduated? How many hours of weekly work does the award imply?
  • Are other options available to me at my first choice college or university? Ask the aid office at that college or university to suggest other options for financing your education.
Luckily for Hannah Crippen, a first-year college student, all three schools she applied to offered comparable aid packages. This allowed her to make her decision based on other factors.

"The college she chose came down to a gut feel she had during her campus visit, and also recruiting by their admissions staff, that made her feel special and wanted," says her mother, Mary Crippen. "My husband and I met at a college very much like the ones she applied to, so we want to give our children the opportunity to have a college experience like we had if at all possible. We know it means making some adjustments to make that happen."