If you are a high school senior, you’re probably breathing a sigh of relief now that most of your college applications have been submitted. In fact, some of you may already have your acceptance letters in hand. Now, you just have to decide which college is best for you. This may seem like an easy task, but choosing a college is a little more complicated than saying ‘yes’ to your top choice. You have to consider several factors, such as available opportunities, campus amenities, and location. Of course, the overall cost of your college education is probably one of the most important factors in determining where you will land this fall. So, how do you know which college is giving you the best deal? Fortunately, there is now a form that many colleges use called the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet. This template was created by the federal government to help you better understand what financial aid is being offered and how it affects your bottom line. But what if your school doesn’t use this template? Here are a few things you should consider when determining which financial aid package is best for you.
1. Know Your Cost of Attendance
Be sure you understand the big picture. There are many costs associated with attending college, other than tuition, fees, and books. You will need to know all your anticipated expenses, such as housing and meal plans, as well as travel or transportation costs, just to name a few. Once you factor in all these expenses, you can deduct any financial aid that is being offered to determine how much you can expect to pay out-of-pocket for one year of school. Although one school may have cheaper tuition, another school with higher costs could end up less expensive, once your financial aid package has been applied.
2. Review Types of Aid Offered
Colleges and universities offer several types of aid, which can typically be placed into two categories: gift aid and self-help aid. What’s the difference? Gift aid includes grants, scholarships, and other aid that doesn’t have to be paid back. Self-help aid, on the other hand, typically consists of student loans and work-study programs. You’ll want a financial aid package that includes more gift aid, as this will help reduce your bottom line and not leave you struggling with student loan payments 10 or 20 years after graduation. Some colleges still lump all forms of financial aid together in their offers, so it may look like they are meeting all of your expenses, but be wary of any offers that rely heavily on student loans to meet your cost of attendance.
3. Understand the Terms
Unfortunately, there are a few colleges that front load their offers. This is a tactic used to entice you to accept admission based on a hefty financial aid package your freshman year. It looks great and often includes some large scholarships or grants, but if you fail to read the terms, you could be in for quite a surprise the following year. In some cases, your scholarship and grant amounts will actually decrease each subsequent year, but your tuition and fees will keep going up. Before you accept any offer, ask if your scholarships are renewable and how much you can expect to receive each year. Make sure you understand the terms for renewal, as well, such as the required number of credit hours per term or the grade point average that must be met, as this information will help you understand which offer will be better in the long run.
It’s a good idea to compare all your offers side-by-side to see which may be best for you. Don’t forget to look at the anticipated cost of attendance for four or five years, taking into consideration any financial aid that will not be offered past your first year. If you find that your first choice is slightly more expensive, it may not hurt to give the financial aid office a call and see if they might increase their offer. Of course, you can always look for private scholarships to help cover your expenses, too. In the end, your decision should be one that will not only give you a great education, but also ensures you will graduate as debt-free as possible.
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