Making the Final Decision
Forward thinking during a pandemic is never wasted effort. Prospective college students are watching from a distance to see how college campuses are providing safety measures for their current students on and off campus. These actions are informing next semester’s or next year’s students on how to make the final decision for their postsecondary journey.
Considerations when reviewing and comparing your financial aid offers:
- Is a physical visit to campus possible? If not, you may be able to virtually tour the campus online at: www.campustours.com. Things to consider: distance from home, rural/vs urban, college size, class size, and more.
- Does the institution fit your personality, personal goals and interests the best?
- What is the graduation rate of the institution? A college that has a 25% graduation rate means that only 1 out of 4 students graduate! A college that has a 90% graduation rate means that 9 out of 10 students graduate.
Understand your financial aid offer
Once you have applied for financial aid by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and any other financial aid forms required by the college, you will receive a financial aid offer. This offer will detail the types and amounts of financial aid the college is offering you for the upcoming year along with your expected costs for the year. The offer may arrive with your notice of acceptance or may be available online.
Read the fine print
Read your award notification carefully to ensure you understand all terms and conditions. You can accept, decline or reduce any award offered. You may need to complete additional paperwork (i.e. loan applications).
Identify the following items for each college you are comparing
- Cost of Attendance
- Includes tuition, fees, housing, meal plan, books, transportation, etc. Some are fixed prices (tuition/fees) while other items are based on your personal financial decisions such as sharing a dorm room vs. a single dorm room.
- Grants and scholarships: FREE money – does not have to be repaid as long as you meet the grant or scholarship requirements (ASK: is the grant/scholarship renewable?)
- Work Study
- Part-time employment opportunities may be available for students who qualify and indicate an interest on the FAFSA or institutional aid applications. You may need to complete additional paperwork (i.e., job applications).
- Will opportunities for work-study be offered virtually at the college you’re interested in?
- Student Loans
- NOT free money – MUST be repaid
- Key words for loans: Direct, Subsidized, Unsubsidized, Parent PLUS, Grad PLUS
- Cost of Attendance
Students can accept, decline or reduce the award offered.
When comparing financial aid offers, consider your final out-of-pocket cost. An offer containing loans may have a higher ultimate out-of-pocket cost than an equivalent offer containing mostly grants.
Check out the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s new tool to help understand your financial aid offers. The tool helps you make a plan to pay for costs your aid offer doesn’t cover. It also offers student loan help to decide how much you can afford to borrow; breaks down confusing jargon, provides money saving tips and points out pitfalls.
Make your college aware of any special circumstances
Considering the pandemic situation, be mindful that your family’s financial situation may change after the FAFSA has been submitted due to unemployment or illness. If this occurs, be sure to report any changes to your college’s financial aid office. Have you been awarded additional private scholarships? Any of these changes can affect your offer.
What if it’s not enough?
If after reviewing the offer letter you believe that the offer and your family savings are not enough to cover all of your expenses, don’t panic! There are other options.
- Research any and all sources for private scholarships. It may not be too late to apply.
- Consider any potential benefits from your (or your parent’s) place of employment.
- See if your college offers a payment plan that allows tuition expenses to be spread out over the year.
Review all acceptance offers and determine:
- Is additional documentation needed to complete the admissions process?
- Are instructions provided for setting up your student account?
Once you’ve selected a college that meets your needs and comfort level during the pandemic, you might need to inform the college, in writing, about how much of the offer you plan to accept. If you don’t respond by the date indicated, your offer could be in jeopardy.
Help is available. ECMC’s The College Place offers free assistance by qualified college access professionals. You can also download a variety of free college resources here: https://www.ecmc.org/students/opportunities-guide-workbook.html and here https://www.ecmc.org/students/resource-guides.html.
About the Author:
Jan Smith is the College Place Director at Educational Credit Management Corporation (ECMC.) ECMC is a non-profit that works to lower student loan default rates; sponsors college access and success initiatives, and financial literacy programs; provides resources to support student loan borrowers to successfully repay their loans.