Evaluating Financial Aid: Part 3

20 Mar

As  you and your parents look over the financial aid offers, you may be a little confused. The differing formats and terminology may seem like you’re being asked to compare apples with oranges.

Buffy Tanner, a counselor with the BOLD (Bachelor’s through Online and Local Degrees) program at Shasta College, has some helpful advice. (She was formerly part of the College OPTIONS organization, which has a mission to strengthen the college-going culture in the more rural areas of northern California by increasing opportunities for students to pursue and become informed about postsecondary education).

portland-1-jFirst, she says to make sure each college includes all five components of Cost of Attendance (some colleges don’t include all five on their award letters):

  • Tuition/Fees
  • Room/Board
  • Books/Supplies
  • Transportation
  • Personal Expenses

Tanner also says, “Students need to realize that the Cost of Attendance published by each school is an AVERAGE, ESTIMATED cost.  For some students, transportation costs may be more or less; they can save money by tripling up in a dorm, or by living at home, etc.  As much as possible, they should personalize that Cost of Attendance for each college to determine what they will REALLY need.”

The College OPTIONS organization has developed a Financial Aid Offer Comparison Worksheet that can help you evaluate financial aid offers. In this Excel document you can insert the numbers of each type of aid from a college (and then the next college and the next), so as to get an actual “apples to apples” comparison (instead of apples to alligators).  This tool is online:  https://collegeoptions.org/financial-aid/. (See the middle column “Tools for Award Letters” — the last bullet. There is also a link for instructions on how to use the tool.)

“There are MANY roads from point A to point B,” Tanner notes. “Some are more scenic than others, others are quicker, still others have hidden gems along the way that they don’t even know about.”

In any case, do not make rash decisions based on a quick glance of the financial aid offers. Weigh your options carefully and make sure any decision is done with the help of your parents.


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Comparing financial aid: Part 2

12 Mar

After you and your parents figure out your cost of attendance for each college (see the Part 1 blog posted last week about how to whittle down college costs), you should create a chart that shows the various financial aid offered to you by each college.

This list should include the following:

1. Scholarships that you know of so far.

2. Grants (gifts of money that do not need to be repaid), including these: Federal Pell Grant, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, TEACH Grant, Cal Grant (or your state’s grant), and other grants, to include grants from the college.

3. Work study (great opportunity, which I will discuss in a future blog)

4. Loans, to include these: Federal Perkins Loan (best student loan), Federal Subsidized Stafford Loan (good student loan), Federal Unsubsidized Stafford Loan (not as good student loan), Federal PLUS Loan (loan parents must take out–not such a good option because of repayment requirements), and private loan(s) (your worst option).

The financial aid offers can help you logically determine which college is giving you the best option. One IMPORTANT piece of research to do before deciding is to find out if the scholarships that you obtain on your own will be counted against any scholarships or grants that the college offers you. Some colleges do; some don’t. That issue helped my daughter decide which college to attend, because she received many outside scholarships. If the college will let scholarships cancel out loans rather than grants — that is an important factor for your financial future. Go on each different school’s financial aid website to find out this important info.

NEXT UP: Other considerations to weigh other than financial aid.



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How to compare financial aid offers: Part 1

8 Mar

As you are weighing which college to attend, a big consideration can be the various colleges’ financial aid offer. Today we’ll look at Cost of Attendance (COA).

Carefully examine each college’s cost of attendance, which is the list of various fixed and other expenses. Obviously, the tuition is not flexible, but often you can whittle down some of the following expenses:

– Fees (some of those fees are optional such as parking, health services (if you provide proof of health insurance), and some student body fees.

– Books and supplies: Textbooks can now be borrowed from the library, as well as purchased used online (make sure the ISBN is the same).

– Rent/housing: Perhaps you can figure out another option than the dorm, although it’s usually recommended to stay in the dorm the first year so as to make connections and feel a part of the campus life.

– Utilities and cell phone: Be realistic about what these will cost, especially if you will be in an apartment.

– Transportation: I do NOT recommend that a freshman student have a car the first year. Every other person who does not have a car will want to borrow it (a mistake) or ask you for rides. Gas is expensive, as are parking tickets and accidents. Also, a college freshman with a load of kids is a recipe for weekend disaster.

– Clothing and laundry: Could graduation gifts cover these expenses? Find out how much the machines are in the dorm and estimate how much you really will need to do laundry.

– Miscellaneous: The temptation to eat out all the time is great — create a budget item and stick to it.

It may be possible to take a chunk off the college’s estimated Cost of Attendance (COA). Doing that may even eliminate having to take out a student loan or parent loan. Take time to sit down together and make a realistic monthly budget, so that you’re prepared for the coming year.

Coming: Evaluating financial aid offers — including hidden info financial aid offices usually won’t tell you!



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