Comparing College Financial Aid Award Letters
Albany, NY - It's exciting to receive an acceptance letter from a college; a financial aid award letter follows shortly after. The award letter contains important information about the financial aid package being offered by the college. Students often apply to multiple colleges, so it is essential to review and compare financial aid awards carefully before making a final decision.Award letters typically include the cost of attendance (COA) and the types of financial aid being offered -- usually a combination of scholarships, grants, work-study and loans. Each college may use its own format and terminology, so it can be challenging to compare "apples to apples." The New York State Higher Education Services Corporation (HESC) offers some tips to help you begin. HESC is the State's student financial aid agency that helps people pay for college.
Use HESC's interactive financial aid award comparison chart and keep these considerations in mind as you review each award:
Cost of Attendance (COA): The COA should include direct costs for tuition, fees, room and board, in addition to projected, indirect costs for books, transportation and personal expenses.
Expected Family Contribution (EFC): The EFC is the money your family is expected to contribute towards the cost of attendance; this figure is used to determine your financial need. The EFC is found on the Student Aid Report (SAR) you received after filing the FAFSA.
Federal and State Scholarships and Grants do not have to be repaid. Does your award letter clearly list scholarships and grants? The most common federal grants are the Pell Grant and the FSEOG (Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant). States offer various grant and scholarship programs which may be based on your residency status or the location of the college you are attending. These programs are based on your financial need and must be applied for each year.
Additional Scholarships and Grants can be awarded by community organizations, businesses or the college you have applied to. The award may be based on financial need and/or merit. It is important for you to know if the award is for one year or several years and if you have to reapply for the funds every year. The award may be specifically for students in your area of study and may require maintaining a certain grade point average (GPA). You should know if your award is contingent on any factors such as your financial need, your major, participation in an activity or any other obligation on your part.
Federal Work-Study (FWS): Many colleges have jobs on campus at which students can work and earn money, usually at minimum wage. If you were awarded FWS, apply for a position as early as possible; the college's federal work-study funds may be limited.
Federal Education Loans must be repaid. If loans are included in your financial aid package, what specific loans are being offered? What are the interest rates? Were you offered more than one federal loan? A reference chart outlining the differences can be found on HESC.org.
You may accept the federal loans on the award letter then decline them when you are billed by the college if you don't need them. You may find it more difficult if you decline federal loans on the award letter, but find you need them to help pay your bill later.
What's the bottom line? Does the award letter clearly state whether the school is able to meet your full need? Is most of the money in the form of scholarships and grants or loans and work-study? How much of the money must be repaid?
After totaling the financial aid, how much is left to pay? How will you fill the gap? You may have savings, but will you also need an alternative (private) loan? And, most importantly, will you be able to afford the additional debt usually at higher interest rates?
Monthly payment plans: Most colleges offer interest-free monthly payment plans. For a small application fee, you can spread your payments over 10 or 12 months, depending on the plans the college offers. Contact the student accounts office at the college for details.
Private education loans, also known as alternative education loans, are offered by private lenders. Borrowing a private loan is a serious financial commitment. Be sure to exhaust all federal loan eligibility before taking a private loan.
If a private loan is needed, student borrowers may secure better terms and pricing by adding a credit worthy cosigner to their application. Compare private loans carefully and always check the interest rate, fees, interest rate capitalization policy, repayment period, prepayment penalties and other terms and conditions before you sign a promissory note.
Learn more about fees, interest, capitalization and the true cost of private student loans at HESC.org's Paying for College section.
Be open to all the possibilities each college or university offers and talk to your family realistically about your "dream" college and those you can actually afford.
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