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The Award Letter:
Comparing Offers from Different Schools

Great news: you've been accepted to several schools (including the school of your choice) and now the financial aid award letters are flooding in. But how do you decide just what each award letter means and choose the best from the bunch? Here are some tips for making award letter comparisons a snap.

The first thing to determine is how much each school will cost. To find out, take each award and locate the Cost of Attendance (COA) breakdown (if it's not provided or not broken down, contact the financial aid office and ask for a breakdown).Usually the cost of attendance is the amount of tuition, room, board, and any other fees/expenses.

After you know the Cost of Attendance, look at the offered award. Colleges provide three types of aid: grants, loans, and work study awards. Begin by determining how much money you were given in grant aid. Then figure the total amount of loans. When you've added the grants and loans together, subtract them from the Cost of Attendance. The remaining amount is what you will need to pay to attend that particular school.

When evaluating grants and loans, remember to find out if the grants are renewable, and any terms and conditions. Also, be sure to note the terms of any loan being offered, the interest rate, and when it needs to be repaid.

If part of the award includes employment (Federal Work Study or any other employment award), don't figure this in the comparisons. These types of awards are earned by finding positions on campus and you are not guaranteed employment. (It is also not mandatory that you accept these or the loan portions of your award.)

After finding the total cost of attendance for each school and the amounts and type of aid being offered, determine your Expected Family Contribution. (The EFC comes from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and from the College Board's CSS/Financial Aid Profile. The formulas the FAFSA uses are the Federal Methodology. The CSS/Financial Aid Profile is used to allocate institutional funds and uses the Institutional Methodology to calculate your EFC.) After submitting the financial aid forms, your calculated EFC will be provided to you.

The EFC is the amount of money you are expected to pay toward the cost of attending college. Schools determine financial need by subtracting the EFC from their total cost of attendance.

Armed with this information, look at each award. Does the total amount of aid awarded equal your need? If your expected family contribution plus the aid offered is less than the cost of attendance, you will have to locate additional resources or somehow reduce expenses. If your financial need is not met by gift aid (grants or scholarships), can you supply the additional money or afford to borrow? Don't forget that all loans have to be repaid with interest. And if employment is considered, can you work and have enough time to study and do well in your classes?

If you are not satisfied with an aid award, the amount may be challenged if you believe there is a mistake or an oversight. If your situation has special circumstances that were not demonstrated on the financial aid application, contact the aid office and request a review.

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