Everything You Need to Know About Your Financial Aid Award

financial aid questionsThe number of students who choose to apply for financial aid is rising with each and every passing year. In California, for example, applications for aid have increased by 74 percent in six years, according to an analysis performed by The Associated Press. As the cost of a higher education continues to increase, and as many families continue to deal with fallout from the housing market crash, help is just required. Without it, many students wouldn’t be able to go to school at all.

Thankfully, statistics also suggest that those students who do apply are being rewarded for their time and effort. The National Center for Education Statistics suggests that the number of full-time, first-time students at the undergraduate level who got financial aid packages for 4-year institutions increased from 75 percent in 2006-2007 to 83 percent in 2010-2011. Students need help, and thankfully, there are funds available to meet that need.

At the end of the application process, students are provided with a significant amount of information that details what sort of assistance they qualify for and what they’ll need to do in order to take advantage of that help. Often, this information is detailed in a Financial Aid Award Letter from the school, and all of the data is laid out in an easy-to-read format. But comparing one letter to another can be a little tricky, and some students don’t understand all of the terms they see on their letters. This article will help, as it will outline what’s typically included in a letter and what sorts of questions are appropriate for any student to ask when that letter comes.

Receiving Notification

Once all of the forms are complete, and the schools have accepted all of the applications that they can before the filing deadline hits, the administrators at these schools send out a formal letter that details a student’s financial aid package.

Using the University of Minnesota as an example, this letter details:

  • The average cost of attendance of the school
  • The amount the family is expected to contribute (calculated via the FAFSA)
  • Forms of aid coming from the local level
  • Forms of aid coming from the governmental level

The University of Minnesota and many other large institutions use the Internet to deliver this information. Students receive an email with login instructions, and they follow those directions to tap into a secure website that contains all of the information they need about the aid they qualify for.

Aid Types Shown

student resourcesWhile these offer letters might suggest that a student qualifies for a significant amount of assistance in order to pay for school, not all of the sums shown here are free for students, and some come with some very severe restrictions that could eliminate a student from compensation altogether. It’s difficult to list all of the funding sources that might be included on a letter, as they can vary dramatically from institution to institution, but these are a few different categories students can watch for.

Grants, whether they come from the federal government or local sources, are typically considered free forms of aid. They’re distributed based on need, so students who qualify for this kind of assistance typically have a very low ability to pay back any kind of loan. A grant is designed to help fill that gap, so these needy students can get the education they’ll need to improve their financial standing.

Scholarships work in much the same way, but rather than focusing exclusively on need, many of these programs look for a specific achievement or attribute before distributing funds. Academic prowess, athleticism or creativity might all factor into the award of a scholarship, and often, students must continue to excel in their specific attribute in order to keep these funds flowing.

Subsidized loans are based on need, not academic prowess, but students are expected to pay back this form of aid. They may not be required to start making payments until they graduate, and the interest they accrue while in school is covered, but the funds can rack up with time.

Non-subsidized loans and private loans might also appear on a financial aid award package, and their inclusion can be a little confusing, as these aren’t really forms of aid at all. Instead, these are basic loans that come with competitive terms and an expectation of repayment. Students who take on these loans should understand that they’re on the hook for the balance.

Making Sense of the Letters

consolidation-student-loansColleges and universities are allowed to customize their awards letters, meaning that each and every letter that comes from an institution of higher learning might look just a little different. The U.S. Department of Education suggests that students should look for offer letters that include a significant amount of free money. While work-study programs and federal subsidized loans can help to pay for school, free money should be accepted first.

But students might also be wise to consider how much attendance at that school will cost, when all of their expenses are included in the equation. For example, the offer letter from the school might include the price for tuition, but the student might also incur costs due to:

  • Food
  • School fees

Some schools might be more expensive due to their location, while others might be much less expensive, as they might allow a student to live at home. Placing these comparison costs into the equation could throw a completely different light on an award letter, and that might help a family to make the right decision.

Tips on evaluating your financial aid award

In order to know how good (or bad) your financial aid award is, you need to consider a few things:

If any of the above pieces of information listed above are missing or unclear from your award letter, you should contact the college immediately and request that it be supplied. For incoming college freshmen, you should understand that assuming your family’s financial situation doesn’t change dramatically in the next few years, the offer for your freshman year is likely to establish a template for all four years. That is why this initial award merits your special attention.

Reassuring Thoughts

It can be a little intimidating for students to look through the numbers, parse the terms and come up with the right mix of finances that could help them to pay for school. Thankfully, colleges and universities have helpful financial aid officers who are qualified to explain what’s on the letter and what the student’s responsibilities are, in terms of repayment. These professionals are often happy to make appointments for students who have questions, and they’re quite capable of explaining terms in language any student can understand.

If you’ve walked through the numbers on your offer letter and you’re still not sure how you’ll be able to pay for college with the packages you’ve been provided, we’d like to help. Our search tools can allow you to find scholarships that could help you to cover the cost of school, and our loan partners can supply you with the funds you’ll need to cover your tuition costs. All of our tools are free, too, so you can do some experimenting and tinkering as you determine where you’ll go to school and how you’ll pay for the fees involved. Just click to get started.

Don Betterton, financial aid expert, gives college students advice about evaluating their financial aid award. He outlines the approaches you should take when dealing with merit-based aid versus need-based aid, and emphasizes the student’s responsibilities in the financial aid process.


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