You carefully filled out your FAFSA application and completed the CSS PROFILE. After you sent each financial aid application off to be processed and evaluated, you waited. Now, as your financial aid award letters come in, you may have a tough time deciding on which school to attend, especially if you crafted your college list carefully.
Picking a school for purely social or academic reasons is simple, but, for most students, making a final decision includes a thorough assessment of the total cost of attending each institution. Financial considerations can make or break the decision to go to your first-choice school, but there are some things to consider that may help make you make your decision.
How well does your financial aid award meet your total cost of attendance?
To fairly evaluate financial aid packages, you must first concentrate each institution's concept of your Total Cost of Attendance. The information presented in your financial aid award letters, along with other materials you have gathered about each school, outlines the institution's tuition, fees, room, and board—and, possibly, other expenses. To make a good financial decision, you must compare apples to apples by making sure each college is including the same factors in its Total Cost of Attendance figure. Check your award letter against other information you have to make sure none of the schools is leaving out any key cost elements. The cost categories should be pretty much the same from one school to the next. Once you are sure of the major expenses, subtract any grant and scholarship aid you have been offered, since these are amounts you do not need to re-pay. The amount that remains is your bottom line, the amount you figure it will cost you to go to that school.
You should also consider other elements of your aid packages as costs of attendance. Offers of need-based aid may include work-study that requires you to work while at school and loans that needs to be re-paid — along with interest that adds to your Total Cost. (A loan only puts off paying for college to another day, with the hope you will have a higher income and the ability to pay back the loans.) Thus, these latter two components of your aid package should be included in your Total Cost of Attendance. While grants and scholarships decrease the total amount you will pay to attend a college, loans will increase the amount you will pay.
Your financial aid award may not address some hidden costs
Look for hidden costs associated with attending each college, such as travel, a high cost of living, or textbooks. A financial aid award and/or package may take into account travel expenses and the cost of living associated with a particular school, but it is possible that those other costs have been left out. You may be surprised at how expensive it is to live in a major metropolitan area such as New York, Washington, D.C., or San Francisco. Your estimated cost of living should include off-campus housing if the college doesn't guarantee on-campus housing for four years, as well as food, entertainment, and local transportation.
Travel to and from a college far from home, whether by plane, bus, train, or car, is quite expensive, and can limit your ability to visit friends and family. Although the college isn't charging you, that travel is a cost you need to consider as you compare the cost of attending various schools. You should also know that one of the highest hidden costs of attending college is the price of textbooks. You might ask the colleges you are considering if they have any special textbook exchange or support programs.
Expiration dates can affect your financial aid award
Examine any fine print that is associated with your grants and scholarships and your overall financial aid award. Are these awards renewable? For four years? Do they diminish or increase each year? Determine if you need to maintain a certain GPA or other sign of "academic progress" in order to keep your award. If any of these awards decrease or disappear while you are at school, your Cost of Attendance will increase. Each January you are in college, you must re-apply for need-based aid for the following fall. Find out if the colleges you are considering have a consistent record of supporting students through four (or more) years of study, the average loan debt of their graduates, and their average overall level of support. Meet with financial aid officers on campus to discuss the likely trajectory of your aid package over four years, including, for example, what will happen when your siblings enter or Leave College.
Your financial aid application may result in a work-study offer
Assess your ability to handle work-study requirements, including work on campus or in the college community, and the need to save a certain amount prior to entering the college. Many students find work helps them concentrate on their studies, while others need all the time they can get to succeed academically. You need to determine if the work-study and savings requirements are reasonable for you, what kinds of jobs are available on campus and in the surrounding community that will qualify for work-study, and if you will be paid a wage that is subsidized by the federal government.
Student debt is often a part of a financial aid award
Consider the short- and long-term implications of loan debt. Who is taking out the loans—you, your parents, or both? If the loans are subsidized, the federal government pays the interest on them while you are in college and until you begin repayment. Weigh private loan options carefully by determining if they are credible. Also make sure there are no significant risks associated with them, such as ballooning interest payments or attachments made to your future earnings. A reasonable amount of debt is considered acceptable for most students since post-graduation earnings are likely to be considerably higher. The average total loan debt for those earning a bachelor's degree these days is about $20,000, though some students will accumulate considerably more debt. High debt can limit your choice of careers and your ability to attend graduate school.
After considering the results of your FAFSA and CSS PROFILE, it could ultimately make sense for you to choose the college on your list with the highest Total Cost of Attendance, as it may have much better programs in your areas of interest, a far higher level of prestige, or some other attractiveness for you. You might be surprised, however, to find yourself choosing a lesser "name" college because the cost is much less and it has good programs that will help you advance toward graduate school and/or a career. Examine your financial aid award, evaluate your choices carefully, and make your decision as well-informed as possible.