College Acceptances and Evaluating Aid Offers

03/22/2017 09:36 am ET

College acceptance letters are arriving now – and with them the financial aid offers that can make or break a college dream. Comparing those offers of loans, grants, and scholarships can be a complex task. But if you’re organized about the process, the right decision will stand out.

It’s important to get going quickly, because “Decision Day” is May 1st. By then, you must have accepted one offer and submitted a deposit. So, don’t procrastinate on this analysis. Here are the financial facts you’ll want to compare –and a tool to make it easier

Each financial aid offer comes with three basic components, which are arrived at after the school studies the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form you submitted:

· The COA –- cost of attendance -- for one year at the school. This includes tuition, room and board, and typical fees.

· The EFC – Expected Family Contribution. This could be different at each school, and is not specifically the amount your family is expected to pay after all grants and loans. Rather. It is the number used by the school to calculate the amount of Federal aid you are eligible to receive.

· The Financial Aid Package. This is a mix of Federal student loans, grants, scholarships, work/study programs or other assistance the school is willing to provide.

If it were as simple as these three numbers, your choice would be clear. Simply subtract the offers of free money (from grants and scholarships) from the cost of attendance, to get the net cost. Then figure out which aid package is most affordable, and how much gap you and your parents will have to fill.

From this perspective, it might be better to accept a smaller financial aid package that includes more outright grants that do not have to be repaid, and less debt (for you, and your parents).

Be sure to read the fine print in the offer. Does the school promise that the awards will be renewed as long as you maintain acceptable grades? According to Mark Kantrowitz of Cappex.com, a college advice site, about half of all colleges practice “front-loading” of grants, where the grants for the freshman year are far more generous than in subsequent years.

He notes that at www.CollegeNavigator.gov, you can search each school, click on the “financial aid” tab, and compare the percentage of students receiving grants, as well as compare the average grant amount for first year students with all undergrad students.

Remember, there are other sources of financing a college education. Parents can take out a home equity loan, or sign for parental Plus loans or parental private loans. Or they can co-sign for private student loans. However, each of these is more costly in terms and interest rates than a direct financial aid package.

And there are other considerations in this decision. Which school has a higher graduation rate, and employment rate for graduates with your degree? How far will you have to travel, and will the cost of travel impact your ability to stay connected with your family?

Rick Castellano of Sallie Mae, the largest private student loan lender, says: “Take a look at what’s in the letter, and what’s NOT in the letter!”

One way to make that easier is to use a spreadsheet format. You can create your own, or you can use the one at www.Finaid.org, which makes all of this comparison process quick, easy, and detailed – leading you to the best choice.

One tip: It might pay to go back to your favorite school and ask for more support to swing your decision, especially if your circumstances have changed since filing FAFSA. But that’s a long shot.

In the end, do the comparisons, trust the numbers, and make the smart financial decision. It will impact you for at least the next 15 years, and beyond. And that’s The Savage Truth.

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