Now that you have come down from the high of receiving the coveted announcement from your dream school telling you “You’re in,” it’s time to confront the reality of how you are going to pay for that dream.  While some colleges don’t make you wait long to find out how much it’s going to cost, many schools do not send their financial aid award letters out at the same time acceptances go out. 

That means that you will often have to wait until later in March to be able to start comparing your award offers.  Not all award letters are created equally, so once you have all those letters in front of you, it is important to focus on the important details. Here are some tips that will help you distinguish which college is the best deal:

1. Don’t let the final cost fool you.  

Many times, colleges will try to dazzle students by throwing out final cost numbers that seem too good to be true. Be sure to pay close attention to “all” the numbers your school lists in the letter. Student loans are routinely grouped with merit money, which makes it hard to discern how much money the college is really giving to you from the money they can make available for you that you will have to pay back with interest.

Colleges love to brag about meeting 100% of the need of their students, but how they meet that need may not be particularly appealing.  It may be better to attend a college that does not meet 100% of your need if the need they do meet is in the form of merit money rather than loans. Focus your attention on grants and scholarships, as those awards do not have to be paid back.

2. Make sure the money is not front-loaded. 

In some cases, colleges will entice students to sign on the dotted line by making award offers that make the first year very affordable without disclosing that some awards will expire or be reduced the second or third year. 

The colleges operate under the impression that once you have established friends and life at their school you won’t want to leave and will find a way to come up with the extra money it could cost in the subsequent years. It may take a call to the school, but make sure that the money offered freshman year will also be available the following years. It is best to know what you will have to do to maintain the awards which are initially offered. 

3. Be sure to ask about what isn’t in the letter.  

The one important detail that schools love to leave out of your financial aid award letter is your family’s EFC score.  You will have to call the school to find out how much they believe your family can afford to pay.  Estimated Family Contribution scores tend to vary from your college to college, even though your numbers are constant, so call the financial aid office for each school to find out what your score is.  

This number can be very useful in financial aid appeals, especially if your family has had significant events that have affected their financial condition over the last year.  Since financial aid is determined by prior year numbers, it is possible that the numbers the school used to calculate your EFC score have changed. If this is the case, your parents will need to be prepared to provide evidence of those changes to their finances.  If this applies to you, be sure to read Appealing Financial Aid Awards…Meet Deadlines, Document, then Make Your Case!

4. Asking for more is expected.  

Before you pull the trigger on any school and pay your deposit, ask for merit money.  This is a separate process from appealing financial aid awards.  This request is for more scholarship money, and it should be initiated by you and not your parents. 

A well-written email to your admissions representative can often result in increased merit offers, especially if you have stronger offers from other schools you can use to play against your top school.  While this tactic will not work in every case, you would be foolish not to at least try before you commit to a college. 


The Best Advice 

My best advice is to read your financial aid award letter as closely as you should read any contract you sign. Pay attention to the fine details and don’t make the mistake of assuming that your college is your friend.  Colleges are businesses, so you need to approach this process with the wariness of an informed consumer.