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  • Getting the Best Financial Aid Awards

How to Compare Your Financial Aid Awards

Girl comparing financial aid awards

Comparing aid packages from different colleges can be tricky. Read these tips to help you compare apples to apples.

Use Compare Awards to find out which award is best!

Just enter your financial aid award details for each college into Compare Awards, and it will calculate your net price for your first year and estimate the full cost to earn your degree at each college.

You'll also see how your colleges compare on graduation rates, student loan debt, and other important factors.

And you thought your anxiety was over after you were accepted! Deciphering your aid awards can be just as stress producing. Here's how to calmly make an educated and affordable college choice.

Be Sure the COA Contains the Same Elements for Each College

Your starting point is the college's cost of attendance (COA). The standard components of a college's COA are

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Books and supplies
  • Local transportation
  • Personal expenses

If the college does not show the components of its COA or does not show all components, ask the financial aid office for a full breakdown. Add up the components to get the complete COA.

Add Up All Gift Aid and Self-Help Aid for Each College

For each award letter, identify every item as either gift aid (merit aid, grants, and scholarships) or self-help aid (loans and work-study). Then calculate the total amount of gift aid and the total amount of self-help aid. If it's not clear whether an award is gift aid or self-help aid, ask the college right away. For example, loans may not be clearly labeled.

Make sure that all the merit-based aid the college offered you appears in your award letter. If not, add this aid to your gift aid amount.

Figure the Net Price for Each College

Once you know each school's entire COA and the total amount of gift and self-help aid, you can compare the net price of each college. Simply subtract the total gift aid from each college's cost of attendance. Ignore what the award letter says you will pay and rely on your own calculations.

Figure How Much Debt You Would Take On

To understand how much debt you might be signing up for, add up the loan self-help aid offered by each college, plus any other loans you might get in order to cover your unmet need and your EFC.

Your Aid Offer Is Not Forever

Bear in mind that financial aid offers are for freshman year only and contain no promises about what your financial aid will be in future years. Ask the college what it takes to keep your awards throughout college.

Ultimately, you may not choose the college with the lowest net price or the college that will put you in the least amount of debt, but knowing your net price can help you make an informed college decision.

What's Next?

Compare college net prices by adding your awards to the Compare Awards tool.

Learn more about how colleges package aid.

Find out how to ask for more aid, especially for more gift aid.

Financial information contained on the CollegeData website is for general informational purposes only and may not apply to you or your situation. You should not act or refrain from acting on the basis of any financial content contained on the CollegeData website without consulting with a financial or tax advisor, or your parents, high school counselors, admissions representatives or other college counseling professionals. We disclaim all liability for actions you take or fail to take based on any content on the CollegeData website.