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Doing the math and knowing the options

Soon after getting acceptance letters from colleges, students receive details of their financial aid offers. Most aid packages consist of some combination of scholarships, grants, loans and work-study — and the distribution of aid among these elements varies for each college. Evaluating and comparing offers can be tricky and families may not be aware that it might make sense to appeal an award in specific cases. How do you help students and families compare and appeal financial aid awards?

Understanding the types of financial aid

First, make sure your students and their families understand the three main categories of financial aid.

Scholarships and grants

Often referred to as "gift aid,” scholarships and grants don't have to be repaid. However, the gift may come with conditions. For example, the student may have to maintain a minimum grade point average to renew a scholarship. Or, in the case of a grant based on financial need, the grant amount may be adjusted if the student gets aid from other sources or has a change in financial circumstances.


Financial aid in the form of student loans will have to be repaid at some point.

Need-based student loans are subsidized, meaning the federal government pays the interest on the loan while the student is enrolled in college at least part time. Some important considerations for families looking into these loans include: 

  • Repayment terms and when repayment begins
  • Interest rate and whether interest is paid by the government while the student is enrolled at least part time
  • Amount of the loan increase after the student's first year
  • Total indebtedness by graduation
  • Monthly payments

Unsubsidized loans are also available. These are not based on need and families must make the interest payments on these loans during the in-college period, although the interest can be capitalized.


Some students may be offered job opportunities, known as "work-study" programs, to help defray their educational costs. Financial aid officers usually help students find a position that fits their course load and needs. Questions for students to consider are:

  • Is a job guaranteed or is the student responsible for finding one?
  • How many hours per week and at what wage does the student need to work?
  • How are jobs assigned?

Using our online tool

Students and their families can compare as many as four financial aid packages with the College Board's online Compare Your Aid Awards tool. All they have to do is enter information about the college costs and aid offers.

Getting answers

If families have specific questions about any aspect of a particular aid package, recommend that they call the college’s financial aid office. They'll need patience as well as persistence; aid offices are extremely busy after admission letters and aid offers are sent out. If necessary, families should schedule a visit in person to discuss follow-up questions.

Remembering priorities

The college with the most attractive financial aid offer might not be the best choice for a student. Education and career goals should be foremost in mind, along with location and other quality of life concerns. College represents a major personal investment — not only of dollars but precious time, work and energy.

Contacting the financial aid office

Even with a financial aid package from a college in hand, some families may find themselves coming up short. Encourage the parents and the student to stay positive. After all, once a college has admitted a student they are genuinely interested in having that student attend.
Every college administers aid in its own manner; it is perfectly acceptable to ask about how an award was determined. Some colleges won't want to turn someone away for financial reasons, while others simply can't afford to increase their awards.

If the family feels that it can't afford the expected family contribution (EFC) calculated by the college, they may file an appeal in order to explain why the college should take the time to reconsider their numbers.

A family may be able to appeal the award if there's been a significant change in financial status — for example, due to layoff, divorce, death or medical expense. This change must be documented through tax records or other legal papers. Advise families to keep careful financial records throughout the entire financial aid process.

The financial aid office may be able to work with the family and offer advice on how to tackle the financial challenges college presents. Show students some options, and that degree won't seem so far out of reach.