52 Weeks to College: Week 41 -- How to Evaluate Your Financial Aid Awards

You've been admitted to the college of your dreams and now you're wondering whether you can really afford to go to school there. You want to compare your financial aid packages before you choose between where you are going to college. You really need (or would really like) an increase in your financial aid award, but you are not sure if you should. Any of these circumstances apply to you? If so, this week's tips and tricks are just what you need.

Week 41 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary. 
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

This Week

  • Continue evaluating your choices for college. 
  • Evaluate your financial aid offers and decide if you are going to ask for a revision to any.
  • Schedule/plan your post-acceptance visits.

Tips & Tricks

1. When evaluating whether a college is affordable for you, be realistic about your actual cost of attendance.

The college will set a "cost of attendance" based on its own policies and standards and your financial aid award will only provide funds to cover the specified "cost of attendance." But the college's policies and standards may or may align to your particular circumstance. For example, Boston College allows a total of $2200 for books and miscellaneous expenses, including your travel expenses to and from your home. But what if your home is in Honolulu instead of nearby New York City? Your travel costs will obviously be more. Will their allowance be enough or do you need to find additional funds to cover the extra costs you will incur? The time to consider whether you will REALLY have enough money to pay for your first year of college is now. 

2. When comparing financial aid offers from different colleges, compare the components of the aid as well as the total amount of aid awarded.

College X and College Y have the same cost of attendance and both have offered you $25,000 in financial aid. So the awards are equal, right? Maybe,but maybe not. You need to read the details to determine what makes up the $25,000 in aid. As it turns out, College X has offered $15,000 in scholarship and grants that do not have to be repaid and $10,000 in loans and work-study. College Y has offered only $5,000 in scholarship and grants that do not have to be repaid and the $20,000 balance in loans and work-study. From a financial perspective, College X's financial aid package is much better for you. 

3. Courteously asking for an increase in your financial aid award is wise if your circumstances support such a request.

There are two circumstances when you should ask for an increase in your financial aid award. The first circumstance is when your family's financial situation has changed substantially since you filed your financial aid applications. For example, if one of your parents has lost his or her job, it would be appropriate to request a review of your financial aid award. The second circumstance is when you have received a higher award from another comparably selective college. In this circumstance, you should investigate whether the college you want to increase your aid has a policy of "matching" awards. Some colleges do. For example, Cornell will match awards made by other Ivy League colleges, Stanford, Duke, and/or MIT. If you cannot determine what a college's policy is regarding "matching," then politely inquire. 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.