Understanding Your Financial Aid Award Letters
Getting into college is only half the battle; now you need to figure out how to pay for it. Around the time you receive acceptances you’ll also receive your financial aid award letters.
These letters may seem a bit confusing, so it can be difficult to know where to start. How do you evaluate your financial aid award letters? Is it ever possible to appeal them? Read on to find out.
How Do You Evaluate and Compare Financial Aid Award Letters?
Consider how much of your need is being met. How much do you need to pay for college? What is the expected family contribution (EFC), or how much you and your family will need to contribute to the cost of attendance?
Awards are made up of a few different pieces, including grants, scholarships, work study, and loans. For the most part, you won’t need to pay back anything but loan, so factor in how much much you will need to pay back in loans, and plan ahead for the future. You don’t want to be left with loans you can’t pay back after graduating, although you will have some time depending on the sources and nature of the loans.
Pay close attention to the work-study component as well. Work study is the work you will perform at the college or its affiliates, and all or most of your paycheck will go to paying for your tuition. Think about how much time you will need to devote to work study and whether you’ll be able to keep up with your schoolwork in addition to your job.
Financial Aid Shopping Sheet
Many institutions use the standardized Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, a tool that allows you to compare offers. The Shopping Sheet is broken down into several components:
- estimated cost of attendance for the college
- grants and scholarships
- net costs (your cost of attendance minus scholarships)
- your expected family contribution (you’ve provided this information in your FAFSA and other documents)
You will also see a loans and work-study section estimating how much these will subsidize your cost of attendance. Take a look at the sample Financial Aid Shopping sheet provided by the U.S. Department of Education.
The Shopping Sheet and other good financial aid award letters will be itemized, showing the specific grants, loans, and other components. It will also break down the net price to show how much you are expected to pay for tuition, as well as other fees, such as room and board. This will give you a clearer picture of your total personal cost of attendance minus the parts that will be covered by aid.
The costs will likely be similar at the colleges to which you have been accepted. If they’re not, it may mean one college is awarding you higher aid, or they’re trying to attract you with merit-based scholarships.
Personal Cost of Attendance
Your net price will be the personal cost to attend. It may not be clear from your letter. To calculate your net price, subtract your aid from the total cost to attend the college. Take into account tuition, room and board, and other fees. Since you’ll have to pay back loans, you should not consider them part of your aid when subtracting your total aid from the cost of attendance.
For more tips on understanding your financial aid package, read How to Evaluate, Compare, and Leverage Financial Aid.
Questions to Ask a College Financial Aid Officer
If you’re having trouble understanding your package or have concerns, here are some questions to ask a college financial aid officer before you apply and after receiving your offer:
Before You Apply
- What percentage of your student body is on financial aid? How much of their need is met?
- Are scholarships renewable? Do you offer merit-based scholarships? If I receive outside scholarships, how will they impact my financial aid package at your school?
- How much do you expect your attendance fees to rise? Will you reevaluate my aid if they rise substantially?
After Receiving Your Offer
- Do you accept appeals? What is the appeals process like? How do I initiate an appeal?
- My family circumstances have changed. Will you reevaluate my financial aid award?
- Are there additional ways to supplement my income so I can pay for college on campus? How many hours will I need to work to fulfill the work-study portion? What are some examples of work-study opportunities?
Can You Appeal Your Financial Aid Award?
The financial aid decision you receive isn’t necessarily final; you can appeal your award under some circumstances. For instance, you will be able to appeal the decision if a family member requires expensive medical care or passed away or your parent lost his or her job. If another college has offered you a better package, a school might match it. Additionally, if you’re a hooked applicant, and the college has shown interest in you, you may be desirable to the admission committee, and they will offer you financial incentive to attend.
Some colleges specifically state that they will consider appeals. However, you shouldn’t appeal if nothing changed in your financial circumstances or you’re basing your appeal on another school’s very different financial aid policy. You also shouldn’t appeal if you do have the adequate means to pay for your education.
How Do You Appeal a Financial Aid Decision?
If you decide to appeal your financial aid decision, start by discussing the situation with your parents. It’s possible that they can give you additional financial support. Next, discuss your situation with the financial aid and admissions officers at the school you want to attend. They may be able to give you information on how they came to their decision and the policies in general. They might also be able to offer advice on appealing or inform you about other programs that will enable you to make extra money in campus.
Then write your letter. Based on offers from other colleges or your new situation, state what you think your award should be. Be sure to include supporting documents, such as financial letters, award letters from other schools, and other evidence of your change in situation.
Once you send your letter or email (email is faster, but it may be safer to send a letter if you’re worried about emailing financial documents), it’s okay to check in with your admissions officer occasionally, but not too frequently. Remember that she’s doing you a favor by reviewing your appeal, so don’t pester or otherwise bother her.
For more tips on appealing your financial aid decision, check out Can I Appeal My Financial Aid Award?.
What if the College Denies My Appeal?
If the college denies your appeal, you can take some further steps:
- Appeal again, assuming you have new information in addition to what you’ve already submitted.
- Discuss your situation with your parents to see if they’re able to contribute more. (Read What If My Family Can’t or Won’t Pay the Expected Family Contribution for advice on doing so.)
- Explore other options for making money, such as getting a part-time job.
- Explore outside scholarships, but be aware that they may affect your financial aid package.
- Consider matriculating at your second-choice college; you may be able to transfer later.
- Take a gap year to earn money to cover the cost of tuition.
For more advice on navigating financial aid, check out these posts:
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Check out the CollegeVine Mentorship Program. Our mentors drive significant personal and professional development for their high school mentees.
Combining mentorship with engaging content, insider strategies, and personalized analyses, our program provides students with the tools to succeed. As students learn from successful older peers, they develop confidence, autonomy, and critical thinking skills to help maximize their chances of success in college, business, and life.
Want more tips on improving your academic profile?
We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.