Newark-based Sallie Mae is offering advice for high school seniors who are reviewing college financial aid award letters.
Students who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) receive a financial aid award letter from each school to which they’ve been accepted.
Award letters offer information about the cost of college and available financial aid, but formats, organization, and terminology may differ.
“In many ways, financial aid award letters are like donuts — they’re tempting, but the fanciest-looking may not be the tastiest, and it’s a good idea to know what’s inside before making your choice,” said Martha Holler, senior vice president, Sallie Mae. “Before you invest personally and financially in college, it’s worth investing the time to weigh the pros and cons of each offer, so you can make an informed decision about which school you do — or ‘do-nut’ — choose.”
Sallie Mae offers “do’s and do-nuts” to help students and families compare financial aid award letters:
1. Look for three basic ingredients. Each financial aid award letter includes the school’s Cost of Attendance (COA) for one year; the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), an estimate the school uses to determine financial aid eligibility; and the financial aid offer itself, which typically consists of “free money,” like scholarships and grants, as well as federal student loans, which have to be repaid.
2. List each ingredient in a spreadsheet. Even though the ingredients are generally the same, the way financial aid components are organized and how they’re described may differ from school to school. A spreadsheet makes it easier to weigh the pros and cons of each offer side by side.
3. Think about what’s not in the letter. Add campus culture, location, sports teams, social scene, and other quality-of-life considerations to the spreadsheet.
4. The biggest award may not be the best award. Look beyond the total dollar amount of each award to see how much is gift aid, such as scholarships and grants, and how much consists of money that will need to be paid back, like student loans. It may make sense to accept a smaller award that offers more scholarships and grants than a larger award that consists mainly of loans.
5. Calculate the bottom line. Subtract the total financial aid offer, including federal loans, from the COA. The difference is the “gap,” the amount that will have to come from savings, income, 529 plans, or other sources of funds to meet college costs.
6. Read the fine print. Pay attention to award conditions and contingencies, and note which parts of the award are renewable and which are for one year only. Complete and submit required documents promptly; missing a deadline could jeopardize the award.
Schools generate a new financial aid award letter each year the student is enrolled. The types and amounts of aid can change from year to year, so students should submit a FAFSA every year they are in school. The FAFSA may be submitted beginning Oct. 1 each year.
You can find more award letter “do’s and don’ts at SallieMae.com/awardletters.