Jill Haley: Pay close attention to those financial aid award letters
I had a conversation with a student the other day that began like this “I just got my financial aid award letter and they offered me $15,000!” Sounds great, right? Not necessarily. When we looked closely at the offer, the $15,000 was mostly in the form of loans for her and for her parents. This is money they will both have to pay back if they sign-off on this award.
College Consultant Rose Murphy will host a two-part workshop through Sierra College’s Community Education Program in April which will explore changes in college admissions since COVID 19. For more information contact Rose at abestfitcollege.com.
Families need to scrutinize these offers and look closely if the money is gift aid (don’t have to pay back) or loans. So where do you start, to make sure you are making an informed decision on paying for college?
First is to know what your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is. Your EFC is what colleges expect a family to contribute to their child’s education. You can find this out as early as the freshman year in high school by using the calculator on the studentaid.gov website.
Once you know what you are expected to pay, you can then go about looking at colleges that fit your budget. You will want to look at the total cost of attendance, not just the tuition costs. The total cost of attendance (COA) includes tuition, room and board, books and misc. fees. If attending far from home, travel costs should be incorporated into the cost.
What about merit aid-money given to a student to attend college because of their good grades or talents? This is money that is not determined by a student’s need, and is money generated from individual colleges. Merit aid will be higher at private colleges than at public colleges and universities.
In general, the more impacted a college is the less likely they are to offer merit aid. Colleges that give the most merit aid are those that are located away from the two coasts and are not name brands. Many are small liberal arts colleges where students can get a terrific education and graduate with little debt.
There are two good tools to help determine how much merit aid a student might receive at an individual college. The first is the net price calculator. Posted on college websites, this calculator allows prospective students to enter information such as grades and test scores to help determine how much aid they can expect at a particular college.
The second tool is a new organization called Tuitionfit which organizes data from all over the county based on award letters from past applicants. Students and parents can post their award letters and also see what colleges have offered to similar students.
Taking the necessary steps to estimate how much financial aid you might receive ahead of time allows families to discuss what their price range is and avoid the pitfalls of student debt.
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