It’s Almost Decision Time: 5 Tips for Comparing your Financial Aid Award Letters

Feb 21, 2019

by Erin Ervin Smith
Assistant Vice President of Enrollment Management and Communications
If you’re waving the white flag in surrender after reviewing your financial aid award letters, fear not: we’re here to help! Though the May 1 national candidate reply date is quickly approaching, you still have time to thoughtfully review your award offers before making a decision. As you sift through dozens of award letters — each displaying your financial aid differently, consider the following tips as you compare your aid and costs.

1. Understand the difference between "cost of attendance" and "direct costs".

Cost of attendance includes nearly any cost that you could incur as a student at that institution whereas direct costs reflect amounts that will be paid directly to your school. It also includes estimated expenses for things like books, supplies, transportation, and loan fees — which can vary greatly by student. While there’s certainly value in considering all of your potential educational expenses, each school’s budget for cost of attendance varies. So, for the purpose of comparing one college’s costs against another, you may want to focus on direct costs, such as tuition, room and board and required fees if you truly want an apples to apples comparison.

2. Compare out-of-pocket expenses, not amount of aid offered.

Speaking of cost comparison, one of the most common mistakes we see families make when glancing over a scholarship offer is they don’t take the time to consider net cost. Schools that have a higher price tag often offer a higher scholarship amount. While basic math will tell you it’s better to receive a $15,000 scholarship from a school that costs $50,000 than a $25,000 scholarship from a school that costs $65,000, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the higher scholarship amount. So always be sure to calculate out-of-pocket expenses by looking at net cost. Net cost is the direct cost minus any scholarships, grants or other aid programs you might be receiving.

As you sift through dozens of award letters, consider these tips as you compare your aid and costs.

3. Calculate work-study carefully.

First, let’s define work-study: this term is generally used to describe federal work-study, which provides part time jobs for students with demonstrated financial need that is paid for by federal funds. Many schools, Florida Southern included, offer part-time employment opportunities to students regardless of financial need that are paid by the institution. If you have been awarded federal work-study dollars in your financial aid package, it’s important to remember that being eligible for it does not guarantee you a job on campus. Additionally, funds are not applied directly to your tuition, and — like any job, you have to work the hours in order to get paid. Thus, it can be a tricky way of paying for college since outstanding balances are often due at the beginning of each semester. For this reason, Florida Southern chooses not to place work-study awards in new student packages their first semester, but you can always inquire if you are eligible, and eligible students who secure a position on campus can begin work at any time.

4. Confirm the aid you're offered is available for four years of study.

It's always baffling when schools offer students a scholarship that is only for your freshman year. After all, most students are planning to be there longer than one year to finish their degree! As you review your award offers, be aware of one-time scholarships that schools are offering, such as a scholarship for visiting or an “early FAFSA filer” scholarship. Also, once you confirm an award is available for four years, be sure to find out what’s required of you to continue receiving the scholarship, such as minimum GPA or credit hours. Bottom line: ask questions about each scholarship and make sure the contributions you commit to are reasonable for your family, not just for one year, but for your entire four years of study. (FYI, all of Florida Southern’s scholarships are four-year awards! And, your Admissions Counselor can let you know of any requirements on your end to maintain it.)

5. Consider the value proposition.

We’ve talked a lot about how to review scholarships and aid to do a true cost comparison by school. However, it’s important to remember that each school has different features that provide varied benefits to you as a student and a future graduate. The weight of importance you place on these benefits should be a major factor in your college-choice process. As you consider value, ask yourself questions like, “Do I want to study abroad?” “What is the value of having real-world experience on my résumé?” “How much more will I spend if it takes me five years instead of four to graduate?” (As a side note, Florida Southern’s internship, study abroad, and four-year graduation guarantees ensure students graduate on time and are prepared to enter their career or graduate school!)

As you finalize your college decision, be sure you have reviewed your aid programs and payment plans with an admissions or financial aid counselor. At Florida Southern, we pride ourselves on offering individualized support and counseling to ensure your family is informed as you plan for four years of college. A college education is an investment that will pay you back for the rest of your life. A degree from Florida Southern will open doors, facilitate connections, and give you the skills to make a difference in your community and the world around you. If you haven’t yet used our estimated expense calculator or scheduled a time with our knowledgeable Admissions Counselors to review your personal financial aid award letter, we invite you to do so! We’re waiting to assist you.