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A woman's hands holding two apples.Completing your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is just the first step in the financial aid process.  Many students list more than one college on their FAFSA, planning to compare financial aid offers and select the institution that presents the most affordable route to a college education.  If this sounds like you, read on as I provide tips for comparing award letters.

Are there tools or charts to help me?

Many colleges post a Financial Aid Shopping Sheet on the student’s college portal, which breaks down all expenses and financial aid offers from that institution. If your college doesn’t list one, there are also online Award Letter Comparison tools to help students and families determine the affordability of the colleges they are considering.

Whether you’re utilizing a comparison chart, shopping sheet or creating your own lists, keep in mind that every college’s award letter has their own format and “lingo,” so make sure that you’re including all costs, and comparing apples to apples!

Where do I begin?

First, determine the Cost of Attendance (COA), which is the amount it will cost a student to attend college for an academic year.  Most colleges report their COA on the award letter, which would include the fall and spring terms.  However, if a college has a specific program, that may be 18 months in duration for example, then they might list the COA for that entire program.  Therefore, you need to make sure you understand the duration of a college’s COA as well.

Cost of Attendance should include the following: tuition and fees, books and supplies, room and board (whether you live on campus, off campus or with parents), and an estimate for personal and transportation expenses.

How do I determine what I will actually owe?

Once you figure out the COA of each college, subtract any grants and scholarships that you’ve been awarded. These types of aid are called “gift aid” because you do not repay them. Next, consider the remaining “self-help” financial aid you’ve been offered. Self-help can include:

  • Federal student or parent loans: borrowed money that must be paid back with interest
  • Federal work-study: part-time job while you’re enrolled in school

If you are left with a balance, tap into other types of funding to cover your expenses. This might include money in your NEST 529 Plan, parent and student savings accounts, or a part-time job. Some colleges may also offer a payment plan to spread out the remaining costs over the school year.

What’s next?

After you’ve carefully reviewed and compared your award letters, you can then choose to accept or decline the sources of aid you want to use at the college you will be attending.

An important factor, to help you compare award letters, is the duration of any scholarships that you will be receiving.  Some scholarships are renewable, as long as you maintain certain criteria such as GPA, and other scholarships are only good for one academic year. If you’ll be attending a two or four-year college, that renewable scholarship can make a huge difference in keeping your expenses down for the duration of your schooling!

Hang in there…. you’ve got this!  If you have any questions, reach out to the college’s financial aid office or the EducationQuest office nearest you.  We’re here to help!