As students begin to receive decision letters from colleges and universities to which they have applied, they will also be receiving information from the financial aid offices at those institutions informing them about funding their education. The award letters can be confusing and therefore difficult to compare. Families must be able to identify how much free money (grants/scholarships and work study) is being awarded and how much is coming from loans (funds that must be repaid).
The first task for students and their parents is to ascertain the true cost of attending each school. This not only includes direct costs such as tuition, room/board and fees but also indirect costs such as travel, insurance and books. Only then is it clear what the family will have to pay beyond what is awarded from grants/scholarships and work study (free money). It is the gap that must be made up by the family usually via loans from the federal government, state governments and private sources. These funds commonly become a burden after graduation. So, when awards are received, there are some important questions to ask.
1) What is the percentage of grant aid compared to loans?
2) What is the remaining cost due from the family (the gap)?
3) Will the family be able to afford the loan debt after 4 years?
4) If the family needs more financial assistance from the school, are there usual circumstances that would enable the family to make a compelling appeal for a larger grant?
There are two important things to consider when making a decision about which award is best for the student and the family. First, the college that gives the most aid may not represent the best award because the cost of education there may be higher. Second, if a family does not think they can afford to pay the gap or may be incurring excessive debt, then it may be time to consider alternatives such as attending a community college for the first two years and then transferring to a four-year college. Advice from a good college counselor can be extremely important when making this critical decision.