College is expensive! Your customized financial aid package is filled with scholarships, grants, and loans to help make that cost more manageable for your wallet. But how do you go about making sense of them and seeing which package is the best fit for you? Do you go by who gives you the most money? Do you let your student decide and worry about money later? Or do you go to the cheapest college?
Use some form of a spreadsheet to compare all financial offers and differentiate between the merit scholarships and need-based grants, especially one using Excel. That can be extremely effective. Determine how much aid the college is awarding in the form of grants, scholarships, and loans. Be sure to include costs that may not appear in the college’s calculation: include books, supplies, personal needs, and transportation- often over $4,000.
If the college offers an "admitted students’ day" after all acceptance letters have been sent, plan to attend. They are usually in April and prior to May 1st. This is a very good opportunity to talk to other admitted students and get their insight as well as talk to current undergrads.
Do the proper calculation. Keep in mind that college work-study is not a direct credit toward billable costs. Do not include that in your ‘bottom line" calculations. If there is a loan offer in the award (other than a Stafford or Perkins), do not include that either. Subtract all the other awards from your Cost of Attendance - “COA” and you will be close to knowing what the "real out of pocket cost" is for that college. Do this for each college.
Keep in mind, the overall goal is to integrate the admissions decision with financial considerations. :
Review the overall curriculum & advantages of each college with a long-term view
Think about why this college originally made your list (i.e. distance from home, Graduation rate, graduation placement rate, study abroad opportunities, etc.)
If the award is financially equal between your top 2 choices, check your notes to compare the quality of the departments at each college, differences of value that are important to you and what does your "gut" feeling say.
Have a family meeting to finalize the decision. This decision will have a major effect on how the family proceeds with many other decisions. Complete all the paperwork asap and well before May 1. Then notify all the other colleges that gave you offers, thanking them and allowing them to redistribute that money.
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