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Financial Aid Award Offers

Once your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has  been verified as “complete” by the Financial Aid Office at each school you sent your FAFSA, they will calculate a financial aid package. Note: You must be accepted at the college and have completed financial aid verification if selected before award packages are com-plied. Check with the financial aid office to determine if your financial aid is “complete” at least two weeks after submitting your FAFSA. The package will be based on your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), PROFILE results or Institu-tional Aid forms if applicable.  Schools determine your financial aid based on the Cost of Attendance (COA) minus the EFC to equal the financial need.   Colleges will factor in the following when awarding financial aid: family size, COA (Cost of Attendance), family income, number of family members in college, family assets, outside scholarships and grants, choice of major, and athletic abilities. You will be notified of your financial aid in the form of an award letter either electronically or through the mail.   
    As of December 2013, over 2,000 colleges have adopted the federal “Shopping Sheet”, which is a standardized form simplifying the comparison of financial aid between colleges; however, many colleges still use their own format for award of-fers. Although award letters may vary in format, the content usually remains the same:   
  • Your COA (The total expenses of tuition, fees, room and board, textbooks, and miscellaneous expenses for one year of education). The COA is established by each school, based on federal guidelines. 
  • Your EFC (The amount your family is expected to be able to contribute toward your COA, determined by FAFSA results). The amount of actual out-of-pocket cost may differ per school based on financial resources available.
  • Financial need (The COA minus the EFC equals the financial need)
  • A complete listing of each aid source and the dollar amount 
  • A deadline date to accept and return the offer
  • Appeal process
  • Academic period the award covers 
  • The process for accepting or declining aid

Making Sense of the Award Letter

Financial aid may include federal or state grants, scholarships, federal student or parent loans, work-study, institutional loans or aid.  Grants and scholarships do not require repayment; however, some scholarships require repayment if the terms of the scholarship are not met.  Students can earn money working for the work-study pro-gram.  Loans need to be repaid back; however, some federal loans offer loan for-giveness programs.  
    Award letters will show the COA, EFC and financial aid with dollar amount.  Most award letters will also show the unmet need (COA less the total of EFC and total aid amount).  If the college does not show all of these components and you need all of them to do a comparison, then contact the financial aid office to provide the missing components to spell out the ones listed.  
    Award letters will provide a student an opportunity to accept or decline each source of financial aid.  Before you decline any type of financial aid, you should talk to a financial aid officer.  Some financial aid may not be available if needed after a student declines the aid.   
    Most award offers will also provide directions on applying for loans and/or other financial aid sources or additional paperwork necessary to process the financial aid package. 

Comparing Award Offers

If you receive award letters from different colleges, you will need to compare them to help you make a decision on which college to choose.  Consider the follow-ing before making a final decision: 

  • Wait until you receive the award letters from each college you applied to before making a final decision.  Watch for deadlines.  Missing a deadline may mean you lose your chance to receive all or part of the financial aid package.  If you need more time, contact the financial aid office to request a deadline extension. 
  • If the financial aid package from your favorite school does not meet your needs, contact the financial aid office to determine if any other aid can be ap-plied to your financial aid package.
  • Do not make your final decision based on the lowest unmet need;  you need to look at the total aid package and type of aid offered.  If the lowest unmet need includes a package with a lot of loans versus a higher unmet need with more scholarships, grants and work-study, then the lowest unmet need may not be a savings.
  • Be sure the cost of attendance  (COA) contains the same components at the colleges you are comparing.  If the colleges do not show all components, ask the financial aid office for a complete list. 
  • Do not just look at the school’s sticker price (COA).  Determine your out-of-pocket cost, and the amount and type of aid.  The school with the lowest COA may not be the best bargain.   
  • Compare loans. What are the repayment terms, fees, and interest rates? Who pays the yearly interest rate? Are there any forgiveness programs available for any of the loans?  Federal loans are typically low cost loans. Sometimes an institutional loan unique to your college may be the best loan option.  If in doubt, check with the financial aid office for your best choice.
  • Special conditions. Will outside scholarships affect your aid package?  Will scholarships require a maintenance of a specific GPA or specific number of credits?  Can a student attend part-time? Do you need to maintain a mini-mum GPA or maintain enrollment into a specific program?
  • Availability of the same aid package over time. Many colleges offer freshman more non-repayable grants & scholarships, while providing more loans in junior & senior year.   Colleges use this practice for two main reasons- loan limits are lower for freshman and sophomore students and it makes the award offer appear more appealing. Always ask your financial aid representative if you can expect to receive the same grants and awards subsequent years.

Comparing Colleges

If you cannot make a decision after comparing cost alone, then compare colleges.  Consider the following: 

  • Graduate school. Will attending a less expensive school make a difference in getting into a graduate program later on?  Is it wise  to save money on an un-dergraduate degree in order to spend more on graduate school?  
  • Can you save money attending a lower cost two-year college, and then transfer-ring to a four-year college?  
  • Attending a local college can save money on dorm or off-campus housing expenses.   
  • If you choose the higher cost college, will you be able to pay your student loans back with the entry-level money you make from your chosen profession?  Your financial aid office has access to tools to help you determine your final loan cost and estimate monthly repayment amounts. 
  • Other expenses. How much is transportation daily to college, back home, and parking fees?  Dorm costs?  Living in off-campus housing costs? Include personal expenses such as cell phone bill, eating out and personal hygiene products.

The Final Decision

Pay attention to deadlines.  It is very important to make your award decision on time.  Once you make the final decision, you need to inform the other schools that you are declining their offer.   
    You must sign the award letter and return it by the deadline. You can accept all or only a portion of your financial aid package. You do not have to accept the full amount of the loans offered.  If you can use less, reduce the loan amount to keep your total loan amount smaller. However, if your aid package for the following year is going to be lower, you can take out higher loans now and hold the money for next year.  Follow the instructions provided with the award offer on how to accept/reject the aid.   
    Which aid is best to accept? Generally, free money– grants and scholarships-should be accepted first.  Followed by earned money– federal work study. Lastly, federal loans before private loans. You do not need to accept the total amount of the loans offered. 
   Once you accept the award offer, you may need to complete further paperwork.  Contact the financial aid office if you have any questions or need assistance with the process.   

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) in line with their Know Before You Owe project has launched a new interactive online tool, Compari-son Shopper. This handy tool is designed to help families plan for the cost of post-secondary education. Checkout the Comparison Shopper at the website:  http://www.consumerfinance.gov/paying-for-college/compare-financial-aid-and -college-cost/ 

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