Comparing Financial Aid Packages
Last updated December 6, 2022
Congratulations on getting accepted into college! Now that you’ve been admitted to a few schools, the next step of the process is to compare the financial aid packages . Colleges and universities create financial aid offer letters for admitted students, breaking down all the aid they’re able to offer to cover the cost of tuition & school-related expenses. This is often referred to as an “award letter” or “financial aid package.” This offer letter will be unique to each school that you are accepted to. Some colleges send award letters in the mail while others post online to student portal accounts. Here are some key things to pay attention to as you review and compare your financial aid offers:
Note: Before committing to a school, review your offer letters with a parent/guardian or trusted adult to make sure you make the right choice for you and your financial situation.
Total cost of attendance
Understanding the overall cost of attending the colleges you’re comparing - both annually, and total over the course of 4(+) years you spend earning your degree - is critical.
The overall cost of attendance is more than just your 4-year tuition bill. It includes:
- Food and housing
- Textbooks and supplies
- Lab and course fees
- Health & medical care
- Personal/miscellaneous living expenses
The things listed above won’t be specifically mentioned or broken down in your financial aid package, so it’s important to dig into how much these might cost over the course of your time in college. Housing and food costs can vary wildly between colleges, and are dependent on location (rent for housing will likely be higher in a major city than a small town, for example). If you are living in the residence halls, the costs should be listed on your college’s housing website. If you are living off campus, your housing costs will be based on your monthly rent, utilities, groceries, and other essential living expenses.
Think of financial aid as the total amount of money you are offered to help pay for your overall cost of attendance.
Types of financial aid
There are 3 main types of financial aid you’ll receive in your award package, grants/scholarships, loans, and work study. If you don’t remember the key differences of these funding types, we got you covered. Check out our list of Financial Aid Definitions here.
Comparing your award letters
To determine which school is offering you the best financial aid package, we recommend using Scholarships360’s free Financial Aid Award Letter Comparison Tool. This tool will help you make sure you’re comparing your award letters “apples to apples” to help you determine which college is the best financial fit.
While reviewing and comparing your letters, consider these factors to come closer to finalizing your college decision:
- Which college is, overall, most affordable? Which college is offering you the most scholarships and grants (aka aid that doesn't have to be paid back)? Are the scholarships going to be awarded every year or one time? This can get tricky for two reasons, some colleges have much higher tuition rates so they may offer more grants but still leave you with unmet need. Secondly, If a college only offers you a huge scholarship for the first year, you may not have enough funds to cover year two, three, four and (in some cases) five.
- Financial fit matters. How does that college rank on your list and why? One of the most difficult decisions some students have to make is to forgo attending their first choice because it simply isn't a good fit financially. In many cases, it doesn't make sense to put yourself in a ton of debt if another school is a better fit all around, especially financially. Some students even attend a local community college or live at home for the first two years and transfer to a 4 year later to help save costs.
- Where is each college located? What are housing prices and the job market like for each? Is it in a major city with plenty of job opportunities, but a high cost of living? Is it in a smaller town with cheaper housing but less job opportunities? Think about how these semi-hidden costs factor in.
- Know your numbers. Cost of attendance is merely an estimate of average costs per year. Creating a budget can help you determine if you will actually need all the aid that is offered to you. Let’s say you attend a local college not far from home, you ride the city bus for free with your student ID card, your financial aid package has $3,200 in loans, and a transportation cost estimate of $1,200. It’s likely you will not need the additional $1,200 for transportation costs offered in your package, this gives you the ability to decline $1,200 of your loans. No need in taking out the full $3,200 in loans to cover an expense that doesn't apply to you.
Finding your financial fit can look many different ways. Go into the process open about what your college experience could look like to ensure your college costs are covered.
You don’t have to figure out financial aid on your own! Text #College to 33-55-77 to speak with one of our College Advisors - they can answer any of your questions and help you make a decision that works best for you.