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Decoding your financial aid letter before you accept

Alyssa Pry
Personal Finance Reporter

High school students are getting their financial aid letters right about now. And they might need some extra help decoding these forms as they make their decisions on which college they want to enroll in, which is typically in May.

Families have to understand financial aid offers so they can get a real handle on how much they can afford, says says Andrew Elwell, senior director of communications at the College Board.

“Schools are looking at the cost of attending the institution and then your expected family contribution,” Elwell says. “Schools will subtract that from the cost of attendance to determine your financial need, and then build out your financial aid package.”

“Just because the school gave you the most money doesn't mean it's the best financial aid award,” he says.

Look at what types of aid you’re being offered: scholarships and grants, which is money you won’t need to pay back; federal loans, which you will need to pay back; or work study, which is money you’ll need to earn through an on-campus job.

Elwell says the more scholarships and grants you’re offered, the better your financial aid package is.

Then, dig into what is expected of you with your financial aid package.

“You'll need to complete the FAFSA every year for years that you are looking to get financial aid from college—it's not a one time thing,” he says. “Scholarships and work study may not be guaranteed, so keep that in mind as you’re evaluating the particulars of your financial aid award,” Elwell says.

Understand the particulars of your financial aid award

Find out if you’ll need to take specific classes or maintain a certain GPA in order to qualify for your scholarships and grants. You might also need to do the work of finding an on-campus job if you’re offered work-study.

“Schools ask the student to do the legwork and it's definitely up to students and parents to dig into their financial aid award letters and truly understand what all of the details mean,” he says.

If you’ve done your research and the school is not a good fit financially, Elwell says you should set up an appointment with the financial aid office to discuss your options.

“You can ask them if there are options for you to receive more aid or if they have suggestions for outside scholarships,” he says. “If your financial situation has changed since you completed the FAFSA, they will allow you to appeal your financial aid award.”

You can then supplement your funding with student loans, but Elwell cautions students to know what they’re getting into.

“A loan is a big commitment so you want to make sure you really understand all of the details and what your monthly payments will be after graduation, before you sign on the dotted line,” he says.

Remember, there are resources available.

“[The college] gave you your offer of admission and they want you to attend, so feel free to ask questions and make sure that you're getting the information you need,” Elwell says.

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