Financial Aid

Questions to Ask About Your Financial Aid Package

Review your financial aid packages closely and ask these questions when comparing each.

Shawna Newman

February 28, 2023

Questions to Ask About Your Financial Aid Package
Understanding your financial aid award package can be tricky!
You’ve submitted your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and now you’ll soon be receiving financial aid packages from your top-choice colleges. Your financial aid package is very important, as it provides you with the cost details for you to attend a specific college. It’s a compilation of financial aid from various sources, based upon your financial need; highlighting the Cost of Attendance (COA) and your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) difference. Your first exercise in college-cost planning can be tricky! As there’s no standard formula or presentation of financial aid packages. If you’re comparing financial aid packages to make a final decision based upon cost—be careful. You’re not comparing apples to apples. For instance, is room and board included in the tuition cost?
Compare the cost of colleges you’re considering prior to reviewing their proposed financial aid packages. See how the college you’re considering compares nationwide with the U.S. Department of Education’s College Scorecard. So, how do you know you understand and are correctly comparing each package appropriately?

Ask Yourself These Questions

Does this financial aid package reflect the college’s final 2023-2024 tuition costs? Did you meet your state priority deadline?

Many colleges and their associated state budgets are not solidified at the first of the year.
Public college administration does their best to stay aware and forecast amounts that will be set aside, but nothing is final until signed by a state’s governor. A state's public education funds support many functions from campus upkeep and salaries to special programs AND the state-funded financial aid you may receive.

State Deadlines

Aligning the FAFSA to the prior year gives financial aid offices the ability to send your award packages to you early. Your financial aid packages typically include state-specific, financial aid funding, assuming you submitted or will have submitted your FAFSA according to your state’s priority deadline.

What is a state, priority deadline?

A portion of the money set aside in each state supports financial aid for state residents only. Once this reserve is gone, it’s gone. Your state’s financial aid is distributed on a first-come, first-served basis.

Room & Board, Credit Hours, Work-Study

Does tuition include room and board or credit hours only?

Some financial aid packages use an all-inclusive tuition approach, meaning they include your room and board in the estimated tuition. Be careful when you’re comparing or considering offers. Make sure you understand what your tuition includes.

Does the cost of tuition include textbooks?

It’s easy to forget about textbooks when considering the cost of college, and most colleges do not include this in their cost of attendance. Ask the financial aid office what the average cost of textbooks was for first-year students last semester. TIP: If the college you’re interested in has a textbook rental program, take advantage of it. This will stretch your dollar further.

How many credit hours is your estimation based upon?

Some colleges keep their financial aid package quote within the basic, 12-credit hours per semester. While others choose a more aggressive approach at 14/15-credit hours per semester.

How many jobs are available for on-campus work-study?

Your financial aid award package may include work-study as part of your financial plan to pay for college. However, this is not a guaranteed job. Ask your admissions advisor, how jobs are currently available as work-study at the college you’re considering.

Define Scholarship Offers

Many colleges use scholarships in their financial aid packet as motivators. Be sure to ask and assess the following questions:

Does your package include non-competitive or competitive scholarships?

Non-competitive scholarships are usually funded by the university itself and guaranteed. Here’s the caveat: while guaranteed, the non-competitive scholarships could have a cap, meaning the college has a state-set amount for the year they can award. Once this has been met, your non-competitive offer could adjust accordingly. Don’t be afraid to ask the college’s financial aid counselor for details on caps.

Can you combine a non-competitive or university specific scholarship with other scholarships?

Competitive scholarships are often funds supplemented outside of the university. They’re also awarded to a limited number of qualifying students. Competitive scholarships help to bridge the financial gap that results from your college-proposed financial aid package. Some colleges will reduce their non-competitive scholarship payouts if you’re awarded competitive scholarships.

Is the institutional scholarship renewable for additional semesters?

Understand and compare the value of each before you accept any non-competitive scholarships. For instance, University A may offer you a $5,000 non-competitive scholarship for your freshman year only. While University B may offer you a $2,000 non-competitive scholarship your freshman and sophomore year even after factoring in your $10,000 competitive scholarship. In this case, University B would be your best value.

Loans Included in Your Financial Aid Award Package

Colleges can be creative with your financial aid award package, by including loans to offset your out-of-pocket expense. The out-of-pocket cost is the amount you’ll have to pay or borrow to attend college. It’s also the difference between the cost of attendance and the gift-aid (scholarships/grants/work-study) portion of your financial aid package. Student Loans help many students and their families with the finance gap. Loans must be paid back. Subsidized loans are need-based, that have a six-month grace period after graduation. Private student loans, the unsubsidized Stafford, and PLUS loans, are forms of aid not based on financial need and are available to everyone. These loans are intended to help families pay for their EFC, or out-of-pocket costs. Find out more about student loans and details about each type of loan on the Federal Student Aid Website.

Award Letter Comparison Tools

Use these handy tools to get a side-by-side comparison of your financial aid award packages. Simple Award Letter Comparison Tool Advanced Award Letter Comparison Tool Financial aid calculators

Accepting, Appealing, Rejecting Your Award Letter

Once you’ve asked the questions mentioned above and have done your research you may be asked to return a signed copy in which you accept, appeal your award package or reject various financial aid suggestions. If you reject loans, know the college will not increase aid for declined loans. You may also be asked to return or respond by a certain date. College financial aid offices are great resources if you run into specific questions. As they designed their award packages, their staff are THE experts in interpreting and answering questions you may have. Do not be afraid to reach out—consider them your partners!

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