You got into college! This is exciting! It might be your dream school, a safety, or any other school but you’ve found out you got in. Now comes the eternal, horrible question: can you afford the price tag they put on the financial aid package?
Hopefully, you intelligently applied to a variety of colleges that you could get into and ones that you could be able to afford based on financial aid packages and expected financial contribution. Now, you’ve got all these financial aid packages next to each other, but how do you compare them?
The money that you get on the financial aid packages are in different forms: grants, loans and scholarships. Grants are pretty much free money given to students by the school, either need- or merit-based (which are the scholarships). Financial need is generally determined by the FAFSA and the CSS profile. Also on the packages could be loans, either subsidized or unsubsidized (read more here), depending on what the federal government allows them to give you. In addition to this, you could be offered federal work-study, which is when you get a job on-campus and the federal government subsidizes some of your pay. All of this together makes up your financial aid package.
How do you compare all of these packages? First, let’s see what goes into the total cost of attendance of each college: tuition, room & board, expected cost for books & school, personal expenses, and travel costs. All of these things are generally indicated on the package. However, your own personal spending habits might be different. You may live further away, so you would have greater travel costs. Add this into your total price so you can more adequately compare the financial aid packages. Also, remember private colleges cost much more than public colleges, so their cost of attendance will be higher.
Second, be sure to consider the breakdown of the types of financial aid that each school is offering. Loans do need to be paid back, so choose schools that give you the most grant money. If one school is offering you more grants, that package is better. When looking at loans, be sure to choose the one that does not accrue interest in college since that will give you less money to have to pay back later on.
Next, figure out the expected graduation rate of the school. If you could graduate early in 3.5 years at one school but have to stay an extra semester or year at another school, the one with an earlier graduation time might be better depending on the financial aid. Don’t just look at the yearly attendance cost; add up all four years or any extra or fewer semesters to get the most accurate representation of how much college will cost you. Add up the grant money and the amount of loans/interest you will have at the end to give you the best idea of how much each college will cost you over the full four years.
Finally, look at their policies on other scholarships. Some schools will decrease your financial aid (generally grant money) if you receive outside scholarships. This may hurt you in the end with grant money and your financial aid as a whole. They could also change your loan type or get rid of work study.
A helpful tool is this financial aid comparing tool. Be sure to use it! Good luck comparing financial aid packages. Pick the best school for you in price and fit!