After receiving notification of your acceptance into a college, you must now evaluate if you can afford it. It is a decision that the entire family must make, not just the student.

Schools will send you an award letter (or email), often known as a financial aid offer, explaining the financial aid package available to help make your dream school a reality.

Your award letter may also reflect how your college calculated your financial need based on the information you submitted when filing the FAFSA (or CSS profile for some schools).

Some schools may not be able to give enough grants and scholarships to meet your financial needs. It is known as the unmet need or gap, and loans may have been provided to reduce out-of-pocket costs.

What to look for first…

Since award letters vary from school to school, it is better to compare them based on your estimated out-of-pocket costs. If your award letter does not include your cost of attendance, check the school’s financial aid website for information.

This allows you to determine how much the student must pay, earn, or borrow to cover the unmet financial need. 

A higher bottom line will lead to a heavier work burden and possibly more student loan debt. A higher debt level can impact whether you complete college, your future career goals, and your lifestyle choices.

What is free money, and which funds need to be paid back?

On your award letter, schools may use codes or phrases to identify aid sources. It is difficult to distinguish between grants, scholarships, and sources that would require repayment.

It is important to research the different aid sources to make the best decisions when deciding what aid to accept, reduce, or decline. 

Some schools may provide more financial assistance to first-year students than returning students. This is known as front-loading, and is often used to attract students to choose one school over another.

Students should carefully review awards to see if they are renewable, what requirements are for renewal in following years, or if the funds are a one-time offer.

Student Loan Forgiveness

Many people hate the idea of taking out a loan, but if done properly and as a last resort, it may be the difference between going to your dream school or not.

Even if you hear about possible federal forgiveness programs, it is not free money.

While students and their families are eligible to receive loans, they are not obligated to accept them. You can choose whether to accept, reduce, or decline the loan awards after carefully reading the award letter, and determining the bottom line.

Throughout your education, you must borrow wisely. Living like a student while in school ensures that you will not live like one when you graduate!

What is Federal Work-Study (CSWP)

Many colleges offer Federal Work Study programs, which are a type of student employment that may be included as an aid source on your award letter. If you accept a work-study award, there is no guarantee that you will be assigned to a position or earn the full amount stated on the award letter. 

Typically, you would look for possible positions at your school, interview, get hired, and then work your hours to receive a monthly paycheck.

Having the college as your employer gives you scheduling flexibility, but it will not make you rich.

Where to find your financial aid award letter?

Understanding how the school will distribute your award letter is important. For example, some colleges offer award letters through a secure web portal. Others could provide it through mail or email.

You must determine if you must take action as soon as you receive your award letter. Some institutions will ask you to accept, deny, or reduce each aid source. 

Others could auto-award without the student having to do anything. If you choose to reduce or decline any aid sources (loans, work-study, etc.), the school will be unable to compensate by increasing other aid sources.

What if the award does not match what you need?

It is possible to contact individual schools for reconsideration, particularly for need-based aid sources. When requesting a professional judgment, be prepared to provide documents showing how your circumstances have changed.