How to compare financial aid packages

When I worked in admissions and financial aid, I’d often be contacted by families asking if we would match a scholarship offer from another college. Not every college has the same budget for financial aid, nor do they have the same tuition costs. I’d encourage families to let me do a net price comparison for them. They could then see the bottom line costs at all schools. They could then factor in the true costs as they decided which was the best option for their child.

Colleges, and the government, use a lot of terms. A term you will hear a lot is “Cost of Attendance (COA)”. The federal department of education allows colleges to list a cost of attendance that includes tuition, room and board, and other costs they estimate like transportation to and from campus, miscellaneous fees, personal expenses (ie: toiletries). Not every school includes the same things in their cost of attendance.

Mandatory fees are fees a college or university charges all students such as an activity fee or a technology fee. Optional fees are fees students are charged for specific classes or services such as a parking fee or a lab fee for a biology class. I don’t typically compare optional fees as they vary from school to school.

Instead of using the cost of attendance, I look up the actual costs of tuition, housing, meal plans, and fees to make sure I’m using the most similar data. It’s important to compare apples to apples–some schools might have multiple meal plan options. Some may charge different amounts for different housing (suites, apartments, single rooms). The cost of attendance at once school might be an average while the other school uses actual numbers.

You can easily make your own net price comparison spreadsheet. Create a column for each school, input the costs for tuition, housing, meal plans, and mandatory fees. Total those costs. Subtract any aid from the total costs–listing out merit scholarships, federal grants, state grants, work-study and student loans. You will be left with your unmet need/out of pocket costs. Below is a basic example, you could add any lines you need for additional school specific need-based grants.

 College ACollege BCollege CCollege D
Tuition full-time 15-19 credit hours1122030,10035000 
housing517055005500 
standard meal plan600055006000 
any mandatory fees500250500 
total costs2289041350470000
     
     
Merit scholarship Total50002300025000 
Pell Grant000 
State Grant000 
Work Study150015001500 
Federal Direct Subsidized Loan250025002500 
Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan300030003000 
Parent Plus Loan00  
total aid1200030000320000
     
remaining unmet need1089011350150000

Sometimes a private school maybe less expensive or close to the same cost as a state school, after scholarships. Sometimes the larger scholarship is from a school with a larger tuition–making the smaller scholarship still a better deal. If costs at two schools are similar, but one has offered significantly more aid, I’d let the other school know. They might increase the scholarship to be competitive. I’d only do it if its your top choice and you are willing to attend if they make the increase. Many schools will not negotiate this way, so be prepared for a no.

Most schools will offer a payment plan to let you cover costs over a 9 or 10 month period (otherwise you typically have two payments–one for fall and one for spring). Parents can also borrow a parent plus loan up to the cost of attendance of a college. Discuss as a family what can you afford to pay for tuition annually. Think about expenses you will no longer have once your child heads to college–fees you pay for their clubs/sports/lessons, groceries if they are now eating at school, utilities if they are no longer at home–can that be applied to tuition costs? What have you saved for their education and how much can you use each year? What do you typically spend on vacations a year? Will anything be paid off like a car or credit card that will allow you to redirect those funds towards tuition?

I don’t recommend picking a school solely on cost. You want your child to be happy and succeed. But if they are excited to attend all schools, and one is obviously a better financial option–comparing bottom line costs can help you with the decision.

Finally, look at the schools’ four year graduation rate. You want to make sure your child will finish in 4 years. The added tuition, room and board, and book costs for 4.5 years or 5 years is a major factor to consider when weighing bottom line costs. They will also be losing a semester or a year of salary if they are in school an additional year. On-time graduation has significant return on investment.

If you would like help understanding your financial aid package or need advice on how to talk to a financial aid office, feel free to reach out to Coffman Consulting for assistance.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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