Paying for College

What's Included in a Financial Aid Offer?

Financial aid offers may include costs, grants and scholarships, work-study, college loans, private scholarships, and factors that determined your financial aid eligibility.
A student on campus

A critical part of the college decision is affordability. You've been thinking about paying for college. And hopefully, you've also been planning for it. No matter what, you can't make a sound decision regarding the financial aspect of college until you receive and review your financial aid offers. MEFA has many resources, including this blog, to help you understand the financial aid you've been offered.

First, each financial aid offer can look a bit different. To get an idea of a typical offer, view our sample here. The different formats of financial aid offers can make it difficult to compare the financial aid provided from all of your colleges, but that's exactly what you need to do. You must gather the same information from all of your schools and look at it side by side. A great tool to help you do this is MEFA's College Cost Calculator, which you can access here. On it, you can input each school's cost and the financial aid received to determine your net cost at each school.

To best review your financial aid offers, you need to understand the different categories of information.

What can you expect to see in a financial aid offer?

  1. Costs
    The most helpful financial aid offers include the yearly costs of the school. If yours do not, take the time to find each school's annual costs including tuition, fees, room (if applicable), meal plan (if applicable), and an estimate of other expenses, such as books, supplies, and travel costs. These costs will be listed in the documents that accompany the offer or on the college website.
  2. Grants and scholarships ("gift aid")
    In the offer, you will see any grants and scholarships that you have received. You may see federal grants such as a Pell Grant, state grants, and/or grants and scholarships offered by the college. Note that the terms "grant," "scholarship," and "award" are often used interchangeably. The good news? All of these are direct funds that can be subtracted from the school's costs and don't need to be repaid.
    One important clarification you should make sure to understand is which funds were awarded based on your financial need and which were awarded based on merit. This is important because if money has been awarded based on merit, you'll want to know if the student needs to keep a certain grade point average (GPA) in college or complete other requirements (such as community service or selecting a certain major) in order to continue to receive this money every year. Note that all aid awarded based on financial need also requires a certain cumulative GPA, usually between 1.70 and 2.00.
    Additionally, you'll want to make sure you have a good understanding about which gift aid you can expect to receive in future years, and the requirements necessary to do so. Check the materials that accompanied the financial aid offer for these details.
  3. Work-Study
    Your financial aid may include a work-study award. Though your work-study award will list a dollar amount, you will not receive this money up front. Instead, this is an opportunity to get a job on campus and earn this amount of money in paychecks received throughout the year. Usually, students use the money earned through work-study jobs to pay for miscellaneous personal expenses.
  4. College Loans
    We cover college loans in detail in our blog post here. The most important point to understand about loans is that they need to be repaid, usually with interest.
  5. Private Scholarships
    Any private scholarships that you received and reported to the financial aid office may be listed in the financial aid offer. Though sometimes, schools do not list them, so keep any private scholarships that you did receive in mind when calculating your costs at each school.
  6. Factors that determined your financial aid eligibility
    Sometimes, the eligibility factors used to calculate your financial aid will be listed in the offer, such as the student's enrollment status and planned housing arrangement, the number of people in your family, and the number of family members attending college in the upcoming year. Make sure these are accurate, and notify the financial aid office if any of this information is incorrect or if it changes during the upcoming school year.

While financial aid offers can be confusing, they do contain lots of important information to help you make your college decision. Review them carefully, and read everything that you receive with the offer. If you still have questions, you can contact the financial aid office to ask. You can also call (800) 449-6332 or email to ask a MEFA college planning team member any of your questions.