So, you’ve submitted the FAFSA® (hopefully), and you’ve received financial aid offers from each school you were accepted to. They might contain different grants, loans, scholarships, and, potentially, work study. You’re probably wondering, “what does all of this mean?” And that’s completely normal. Sallie Mae’s research report, How America Pays for College 2021, revealed that three quarters of current undergraduate families find components of the financial aid offer not easy to understand. Whether you’re a first-year or an upperclassman, a financial aid offer can be confusing to understand. Let’s break it down.
What to expect in a financial aid offer
A financial aid offer can look different depending on the school you go to. There’s actually no standard format for financial aid offers. Let’s look at the typical components you might see listed.
Cost of Attendance (COA)
The first thing you’ll see listed is the total cost of attendance. Depending on the school, you will either see the COA for the semester or for the year. The amount listed is an estimate of tuition and fees, room and board, transportation, and supplies, such as books and laptops.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC)
The expected family contribution is determined by the government based on information you provided in your FAFSA®. Schools use this number to determine your financial need.
Grants can come from federal and state governments or schools and private institutions. Generally, you won’t have to repay grants. However, you’ll want to make sure your eligibility is maintained as grants are typically need-based. Grants are not guaranteed to be offered every year.
Scholarships are awarded to students for a variety of reasons. Students may earn scholarships based on financial need, community service, or academics for their field of study. These scholarships are awarded based on information sent through the FAFSA®.
Outside scholarships may not be listed in a financial aid offer. These are the scholarships students apply for. Through submitting applications, students can earn scholarships for endless reasons.
Scholarships do not have to be repaid, but you’ll want to stay on top of your scholarships too because they may not be offered every year.
DYK: According to “How America Pays for College 2022,” 73% of families lowered the amount spent on the academic year of 2021-2022 with scholarships and grants.
Federal Student Loans
Federal student loans let you borrow money directly from the federal government; you pay this financial aid back with interest. A financial aid offer may also list the amount you can borrow with a credit-based loan, like a federal Direct PLUS Loan or a private student loan.
Federal work study is a federal program that the school participates in where you work to earn your financial aid, like a part-time job. You do not have to pay back the money you earned.
How to weigh your options
If you’re still deciding which school to attend, your financial aid offers could be the deciding factor. When it comes to comparing your financial aid offers, you’ll have to compare the aid with the cost of attendance at each school. Make a spreadsheet of your offers to keep everything organized and easily subtract the financial aid from the cost of attendance to compare how much each school you are considering will cost you out-of-pocket.
Accepting your financial aid
Accepting your financial aid offer is as easy as clicking accept or sending in a form. You don’t have to accept everything, but you need to respond by the school’s deadline. Maybe you don’t want to have any loans—that’s totally fine. You don’t have to accept them. But you can still accept the grant or scholarship that was offered. It’s all up to you and what’s right for your approach to paying for college.
If an unexpected change in your financial situation occurs, you may be able to work with the school to appeal for more aid. Keep in mind that there must be reasonable evidence for the appeal to take place.
Financial aid offers can differ every school year. That’s why it's so important to file the FAFSA® every school year. And don’t hold back from applying for scholarships either. Gift aid is not just for gifted students.
Remember to have a plan to pay for college and base your decision off of what best fits your plan. Remember, bigger isn’t always better. You may be offered more financial aid from a school that will still cost you more in the long run. Or a school that seems more expensive might have more money to offer you than a school with a lower sticker price.
Take your time during this process and choose what’s right for you.