Graduating seniors who are college-bound should have received their financial aid offers by April 1. (If you didn’t, get in touch with the school immediately.) College counselor Julia Surtshin recommends a three-step process for evaluating aid offers:

  1. Determine your total cost of attendance at each school. That means looking not at the averages the school provides but at what your actuals will be. Is the school across the country from your home? Then your travel costs will be higher than average. Are you enrolling in a major with lots of labs with attendant additional fees?
  2. Compare your family’s out-of-pocket costs for each school. Can the student earn their portion of the EFC through summer work each year? If not, the parents will need to cover it. And, how much of the “aid” package comprises loans and work study? If loans are included, are they subsidized or not? All of these items are costs your family will need to bear.
  3. Look at the “free” money you’re being offered. Don’t consider just the total grant amount; look too at what’s required to renew it each year and what your net cost after grant money is. For example, a $10,000 award at a $55,000-per-year school will leave you with a higher net cost than a $5,000 award at a $35,000-per-year school.

You may want to create a spreadsheet to simplify the comparison. Each school gets a column; rows should include both published costs like tuition, fees, room and board, and other costs like travel, extracurriculars, and other expenses (the winter wardrobe you’d need at an East Coast school, for example). Then subtract free money only to determine your actual net cost per school.