Before Deciding on a College, Look Closely at the Financial Aid Letter

Psychologically, scholarships can be exciting and make students feel wanted, Ms. Keane said, but students need to consider the full picture. Think of scholarships as “coupons,” she said, and consider the percentage of the total cost that such aid will cover. If you get a $10,000 scholarship but need to cover costs of $20,000, that’s like a half-off coupon — not bad. But if you need to cover $60,000, “that’s not the same coupon,” she said.

Here are some questions and answers about evaluating financial aid offers:

What if I don’t understand the terms of my financial aid offer?

Students and families can find definitions of many financial aid terms on the Education Department’s website. The Institute for College Access and Success offers a tip sheet for decoding aid offers, and helps define common terms.

Still unclear? Call the financial aid office at the college making the offer for clarification. “Make sure you find the information you need,” Ms. Keane said. Many schools require deposits by May 1, so the clock is ticking.

Are there any online tools that can help me compare financial aid offers?

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers a tool on its website, as does the College Board.

The Hechinger Report, a website that specializes in reporting on education, recently began offering a “decoder” tool that lets users upload a copy of their financial aid letters.

Will colleges be required to use standardized financial aid offers anytime soon?

Legislation was filed in March in the Senate that would compel colleges to use a standard format. The measure, called the Understanding the True Cost of College Act, had been introduced several times before — first in 2012 — but failed to gain traction. This year, however, advocates say they are more hopeful that the bill may advance, because it has bipartisan support and offers a relatively straightforward fix to a vexing problem.

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