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Colleges are now mailing financial aid award letters to millions of college-bound students, and these students need to make their enrollment decisions by the May 1st deadline. Many students will have multiple offers, and families will need to decide which award offer is best.

Here are a few things to watch out for when reviewing your financial aid award letter:

The Total Cost of College

Award letters can seem very generous if all costs are not listed. Many award letters only show basic costs, such as tuition, room and board, and books and supplies, but tuition can vary depending on the availability of classes and there are always fees attached to tuition costs.

Room and board can also vary depending on the meal plan chosen; many students will purchase snacks during the day or Starbucks to get started in the morning, so the full-blown meal plan may not be necessary for everyone.

Books and supplies can also be understated: a $2,000 budget for books and supplies can dissipate quickly when many textbooks cost $200 or more. Supplies can eat up the entire $2,000 budget alone for engineering, art, and computer science majors. There are also travel costs and personal expenses that are rarely covered in the financial award letter but can add up to $3,000 per year or more.

If the entire cost of attending that particular college is not represented, the financial aid award letter can look pretty good.

Here’s a little-known way you can get the bottom-line total cost of attending a particular college: simply call the college’s financial aid office and state that you would like to know the total amount of Federal Direct and PLUS loans that you can borrow for the entire year of college. That dollar amount will be the “true” total cost of that college.

The Missing Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The EFC is the dollar amount the family is expected to contribute that year before any financial award is given by the college. The EFC is based on the results of the family completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) or the CSS Profile.

Every college that uses the CSS Profile can create its own EFC because there are many additional questions they can add in Section Q which can raise the EFC dramatically.

In addition, the EFC may not even be shown on the family’s financial aid award letter; in these cases, call the college and ask for your EFC number so you may determine whether the college is meeting 100% of your family’s “financial need” and compare their award with other colleges.

One-Year Awards

Colleges may award the student grants or scholarships in the first year, only to remove them in subsequent years. The only way you can be prepared for this is by asking the financial aid administrator of each school what is required to renew each grant and scholarship in subsequent years. This is a must-do! To have a grant or scholarship removed completely by the college after the first year can increase your costs drastically and put your family in financial jeopardy.

PLUS Loan Maneuvering

Some financial aid awards may bundle loans together with grants and scholarships, or in some cases not even use the word “loan” to describe the award given. You may see award letters with grants and scholarships, the student’s Federal Direct loan, and the big Parent PLUS loan at the bottom, but guess what? The total amount of that award just happens to equal the entire cost of attendance on the award letter.

I’ve worked with families who believed that their entire cost of college was covered by the college. At a 4.264% origination fee and 7.0% interest, that would be a huge mistake; a college loan for 11.264% is NOT a good deal!

The College Funding Coach Is Here to Help

Financial aid letters can be very confusing to families; this is where working with a College Funding Coach can help alleviate the stress you feel trying to make the best decisions for you and your student’s financial future.

If you want to understand everything your letter contains and make sure you are avoiding costly mistakes, you can schedule a free zoom call with one of our coaches to answer all your questions. After all, the less the student borrows, the less student loan debt they’ll (or maybe you) have to repay after college saving thousands of dollars in additional interest.

As a CCFS® (Certified College Funding Specialist), I can help you evaluate your financial aid award letters. If something doesn’t look right, I will show you how to work with the college’s financial aid office and get a better deal. Click to Schedule a free zoom call with me to answer all your college funding questions. With just one phone call, you may be able to save your family considerable money on your college expenses.


Mario Carannante, CFBS, CCFS










Related Reading:

A Peek Behind the Curtain of College Pricing

The Financial Aid Appeals Process: A Guide to Everything You Need to Know

8 Tips for Writing a Successful Financial Aid Appeal Letter

How to Qualify for More Financial Aid During COVID-19

Related Webinars:

The College Funding Coach: TuitionCents Series 2021

College Tuition IS Negotiable

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