Decoding the Financial Aid Award Letter
As you are progressing toward your goal of starting college, there are different approaches on knowing how you are going to pay for school. You may decide on a school and then complete the financial aid documents or maybe you filled out your financial aid first and you are looking at a few different schools. Either way that you choose, one item that you will come across is the Award Letter. If you are not careful, you may end up misinterpreting the information. Just like a tourist on vacation in a foreign country, misinterpretation is never a good thing so let’s translate that info for you!
Award Letters at a Glance
At first glance, the award letter looks pretty basic and boring and can easily be thought of as just another piece of mail from the college. Hopefully, you didn’t throw it away! The difficult thing with understanding award letters is that each school’s is different. Some schools may include info that others don’t feel is important to have. Some might give far too little info while some far too much. No matter what type of award letter your college sent you; it’s important to take the time to review it.
The Basic Info On the Award Letter (and most important!)
The first thing you should look for on your award letter is what type of awards are listed. While this seems like a no brainer when talking about something called the award letter, you’d be surprised how much lack of information can be on there. Almost all letters will list any expected grant money (if you were eligible). Make sure that this includes any federal and/or state grants. If you only see one, ask your financial aid office about the other. If you qualify for one it doesn’t mean you automatically qualify for the other, but it never hurts to ask! The next thing to look for is if they have any loans listed. Obviously, loans have to be paid back, but it’s still considered "aid" since it’s helping you pay for school. Make sure you look to see what type of loans are being awarded. Are they federal loans or private loans? If you applied for a private loan, are they even listed on your award letter. Some schools may not list it since it is not part of the federal aid that you apply for through the FAFSA. Finally, check to see if any other types of aid. Did you win a scholarship or are you a GI Bill recipient? Not all award letters will list this, but it’s important that you make sure the college is going to be using these awards.
The other basic information that you would assume would be on the letter but isn’t always there is how much your tuition cost and other expenses. It’s important that you know how much you are going to pay for college or else the award information is useless. It’s great if your letter says you are going to receive $3,000 in awards, but if the cost of tuition is $10,000 and it’s not on your letter, you sure would be surprised when you got a $7,000 bill at the start of class! If the cost isn’t on there make sure you get that info ASAP.
Finally, make sure you know the time frame this award letter is covering. Is it just your Fall semester or is this your entire academic year? Things can get even more complicated if you are going to a year round school so make sure you know what that info is covering. If the award letter doesn’t clearly have a time frame listed, make sure you talk to your financial aid office.
After you have deciphered the basic info, there might still be more info that you didn’t catch the first time around. First, if you are taking out government or private student loans, are they listed as the full amount, or do they also show what is available minus any fees? You are responsible for paying back the full amount of the loan, but most loans; especially all Federal loans, have some type of fee. Make sure you know how much is actually going to be awarded to cover your costs and how much you will be responsible for paying back.
Second, see if you have dates on your letter as to when the funds are expected to come to the school. This is especially important for those of you going to school year round. This way you can make sure that if your funds don’t come in when they are expected to, you can follow up with your financial aid office.
Finally, look to see what your time frame is to cancel any or all of your funding. Life happens: you change your mind on the school you want to attend or you decide you don’t want to take out as much in loans as you planned. It’s important to know how long you have to change your mind and get your funds returned.
If any of the items talked about above aren’t on the letter or you don’t see them right away, it doesn’t mean your school is trying to hide anything from you. Just like a tour guide in a foreign country highlighting what they feel is important, each school can highlight what they feel is important for their students to understand. If you don’t see something on there, ask. In the end, it’s your award letter and your responsibility to know how you are paying for school.