Understanding Your Financial Aid Package

This blog post is provided by the Unigo Expert Network, a group of top education experts from across the U.S. answering questions submitted by students and parents about college admissions and succeeding after high school. To have your questions answered visit www.unigo.com/expertquestions

“I just got my financial aid package and don’t know what to make of it. What are some terms I should know, things I should look for, or tips and tricks to maximize my aid?” – Mary S., Boston, MA

Ask the Tough Question, Can I Honestly Afford This College? Megan Dorsey, SAT Prep and College Advisor, College Prep LLC    

Stop looking for tips and tricks! Ask yourself a difficult question: Can I honestly afford this college? Make sure you really understand the details of the financial aid package you've been offered. Most financial aid offices are happy to explain their offers. Think carefully: Will you have money for food, books, and travel? If you can barely cover the cost now, what will happen when tuition goes up and your one-time scholarships are gone? What will your monthly student loan payment be upon graduation? Don't financially overcommit yourself now -- make sure you can actually afford your dream college.

Decoding Financial Aid Is an Important Step in Establishing Your Cost George Mills, VP for Enrollment, University of Puget Sound

There are three types of financial aid: money that you don’t have to repay, money that you do have to repay, and money that you earn. The money you will not have to repay is typically called a scholarship or grant. The money you will have to repay comes in the form of loans. (Note that there are many types of loans, some with interest that begins accruing immediately, and others with interest that does not begin accruing until you leave college. Some loans are available through the college you will attend and others you will have to obtain privately.) Finally, money that you earn typically comes to you through the college with a job offered on campus. In the case of work, be sure you understand the pay rate applicable to the work, because this divided into the amount of the work funding you receive will determine the number of hours you will work a week. Typically 10-15 hours of work a week are within reason for a resident college student.

Be Aware that Not All COAs are Created Equal Nancy Griesemer, Founder, College Explorations LLC

Don’t be alarmed if the financial aid letter you received is about as understandable as a Chinese roadmap. Here’s a tip: Start with cost. Most awards provide what’s called total Cost of Attendance (COA). Make sure the figure contains ALL costs, including books, travel, and basic living expenses --like an occasional night on the town. If you’re looking at schools involving serious travel, do a little independent research on how much it would cost to come home for holidays, your birthday or mandatory breaks, and substitute that for whatever estimate the college provides. And be sure textbook costs are realistic. Once you’ve added it all up and arrived at a true COA for each of your options, you’ll be better equipped to compare awards.

Get the full story from 35 more experts -- including the Dean of Admissions at University of Illinois, VP of The College Board, and more -- at www.unigo.com/expertnetwork. To send your question to our experts, visit www.unigo.com/expertquestions.

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