Paying for College

Comparing Your College Options

Determine each school's total cost including billed and unbilled expenses, determine each school's net cost including grants and scholarships, and determine any future year net cost changes by speaking to the financial aid office.

Teenage girl using laptopWhether you're purchasing a home, a car, or groceries, there is one common thread—comparing cost. The college process is no different, and no matter your resources, you'll be able to find a college that is financially manageable. By comparing your options, apples to apples, you will be equipped to make the best overall decision for your family. Just follow the steps below.

1. Determine Each School's Total Cost

A school's total cost may be called the "budget" or "cost of attendance" and should be listed on your financial aid offer.  If it's not there, look on the school's website or call the financial aid office.

The total cost includes expenses that will appear on your bill as well as estimates of other typical call expenses.

Billed expenses

    • Tuition and Fees

    • Room and Board/Meal Plan

    • Health Insurance (only necessary if you need to purchase it through the college because you're not covered under a family plan)

Unbilled expenses

    • Books and supplies

    • Personal items, such as toiletries and dorm needs

    • Transportation (such as a plane or train ticket)

2. Determine Each School's Net Cost

Net cost is defined as the total cost of a school minus any grants and scholarships you receive.  Determining this number allows you to equally compare your college options.

Chart comparing college

3. Determine Any Future Year Net Cost Changes

It is important to determine, if possible, how your net cost will change in future years. To do so, ask the financial aid office at each school some questions:

    • Will any merit scholarship I've received be renewable for four years? What to do I need to do to maintain it (e.g. keep a certain GPA or major)?

    • Will the amount of my need-based aid change from year to year?

    • Is there any additional aid I could receive in future years?

Once you have gathered the information above for each school to which you have been accepted, you can compare your options side by side and determine which one is right for your family. Remember, if you need to borrow additional loans to pay for college, borrow only what you need, and make sure you will be able to afford the monthly loan payment after graduation. Good luck!

Amy Staffier, Director of Financial Aid, Simmons CollegeAmy Staffier is the Director of Financial Aid at Simmons College in Boston where she serves their undergraduate, graduate, and online students. Prior to working at Simmons, she spent 21 years working in the Admissions and Financial Aid office at Harvard College, most recently as the Associate Director of Financial Aid, Admissions Officer, and University Director of the Federal Work-Study Program. Amy has spent the last 18 years volunteering her time helping families navigate the financial aid process through presentations at local high schools, FAFSA Day workshops, and simply sitting down one on one to personally walk them through applying for aid and comparing offers.