So, you got accepted into some colleges—woo-hoo! Now it’s time to figure out which college is the right one (and the right price) for you. This is where financial aid offers come in.
What are financial aid offers?
If you filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) and qualified for financial aid, you’ll receive a financial aid offer from every school that accepts you and that you listed on your FAFSA®.
Like the name suggests, financial aid offers tell you how much financial aid you can receive and how much one year of college will cost.
Oh, and speaking of names, each college may call their financial aid award letter something different. But whether they’re called financial aid packages, merit letters, or award letters, they all serve the same purpose.
Read the Guide to Decoding Financial Aid Offers.
When do I get my financial aid offers?
There’s no hard deadline for sending out financial aid offers. With the FAFSA® opening in October, some schools may send them out right after you receive your acceptance letter. Others may wait until later. The number of FAFSA® applications a college receives and when you submitted your FAFSA® can both affect when a school sends out their offers.
If you don’t receive a financial aid offer from a college that accepted you and was listed on your FAFSA®, reach out to the school’s financial aid office to find out when to expect it.
NOTE: Your financial aid offer is for one academic year, so you’ll have to file the FAFSA® and get a new offer every year you’re in school.
Will my offers all include the same information?
Yes! Although they may look different, every offer will include information on whether you qualified for gift aid (like scholarships and grants) financial aid (like a work-study position), or a federal student loan.
There’s no standard format that colleges have to follow with their financial aid offers. They may group different types of aid together, so be sure to read your offer carefully to make sure whether it’s free aid or a loan.
Scholarships? Grants? Loans? What’s the difference?
The biggest difference is whether you need to pay back the money. The aid can be classified as “free,”, “earned,” or “borrowed.”
Scholarships and grants: This is “free money” that you don’t have to pay back. Scholarships can be need-, merit-, or interest-based; grants are generally need-based and are given by state or federal government.
Work-study: This is “earned money”—you won’t need to pay it back, but you will need to earn it by working at a designated work-study job either on- or off-campus. The money you can earn is also capped at what’s listed in your offer, so you can’t pick up extra hours for more cash. Oh, and if you don’t work, you won’t get any money—just like at a real job.
Federal student loans: This is money that you borrow from the government and have to pay back—with interest.
Private student loans may or may not be listed in your financial aid offer but they’re available if you still need more money after you’ve exhausted your financial aid. These are offered by banks and credit unions and, like federal student loans, they need to be paid back with interest.
Is there an easy way to compare my offers?
As we mentioned, they may not all follow the same format, so you’ll need to do a little math here. To compare your offers, dust off your calculator or open a spreadsheet.
For each offer, add up all the financial aid you qualified for, including scholarships, grants, work-study, and loans. Then subtract that amount from the college’s cost of attendance. (Hint: If the cost of attendance isn’t listed on your financial aid offer, it’s easy to find with a quick search of the college’s website.)
Do I pick the college that gives me the most money?
The answer to this is probably the #1 thing you should take away about financial aid offers. Cost is important, but it shouldn’t be the only reason you choose a college. You still want to pick a school that matches what you’re looking for. So, as you’re reviewing your offers, be sure to factor in each school’s location, campus culture, quality of academic programs, and the other qualities that mean a lot to you.
College is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Let your financial aid offers be one of a few guides that help you make that exciting final decision and pick your future alma mater.