Some colleges are really good at making a little look like a lot. Others are good at meeting students’ need. It’s up to you to figure out which bucket the schools that accepted your student fall into. Here are some critical points in reviewing aid offers:

  • The offer should include the TOTAL cost of attendance, not just tuition, room and board. If estimates for books, fees, and transportation are not included, then you need to find out those numbers too and add them into your calculations.
  • Your aid package may be a combination of grants, loans and work study. In order to figure out how much the school is really offering you, subtract the loans and work study. Loans might be listed under various names, not all of which include the word “loan.”
  • If a loan is included in your aid package, verify whether it’s “subsidized” or “unsubsidized.” A subsidized loan means no interest accrues while you’re in school, so this is actually a very good loan.

A good way to compare your various offers is to create a spreadsheet where you list each expense line item for each school– tuition, room & board, fees, transportation, other misc costs if you’re considering schools with vastly different cost of living (say, NYU versus Creighton)– and a total cost of attendance. (Listing each as a line item helps to make sure that you’re seeing all the costs from each school.)

Next, list all the gift aid– grants and scholarships– that the school is offering. Subtract that from the total cost of attendance, and that’s your true net cost to attend the school for one year. Even if they’re presented as part of your aid package, loans and work study are money you need to earn to pay for school; they aren’t really aid.

Keep in mind that few schools meet all students’ total financial need through grants and scholarships. Ideally the difference between the aid package and cost of attendance would be your calculated EFC, but more often than not, it isn’t. So if an aid offer is already packed with loans and still doesn’t meet your need, it’s not a good offer and you should consider your other options.