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Helping High School Seniors Sort Financial-Aid Offers

Money is a huge factor in the college decisionmaking process. With the cost of attendance as high as $60,000 a year, high school seniors and their families are looking closely at financial-aid offers leading up to the May 1 commitment deadline.

Packages may include grants, scholarships, loans, work-study—some based on merit, others on need. Some may be one-time awards; others are renewable based on academic performance or continued demonstrated need. It's important for families to sort through the outright gifts versus loans and the actual cost of living projections for the various schools to get a clear picture of the bottom line.

"Families should look at the total cost of attendance, including tuition, fees, estimates for living expenses, and transportation and see if it lines up with their budget," says Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. Once the scholarships and grants are deducted to reveal the net cost, families need to look at options for making up the remaining need through savings, loans, and work study.

Recent research by NASFAA found families were confused by the various formats being used for award letters.

If there are questions about the aid or circumstances have changed in the family, such as a job layoff or another child going to college, talk to a financial-aid officer at the college to negotiate, says Draeger. Staffing is ramped up in April in financial-aid offices to handle the increase in inquiries.

This is the first year that colleges are using the new Financial Aid Shopping Sheet developed by the U.S. Department of Education. Colleges are encouraged, but not required, to offer the free online tool to help students compare college financial-aid packages. So far, about 18 percent of U.S. colleges and universities (700 total) are using the shopping sheet.

Draeger says he's not surprised that most schools have not adopted the sheet. More institutions might use the template if it allowed for greater college customization, he says. NASFAA hopes with feedback that the sheet will evolve and improve in the future.

On the NASFAA website, students can download and print out a financial-aid comparison sheet to analyze offers.

College Abacus has a new feature that allows students to compare offers for free online. Company founder and Chief Executive Officer Abigail Seldin says after students fill in the open fields on the Abacus Shopping Sheet, the program does the math and the final page provides a clear comparison of the school costs. To access the site, users have to create an account and sign in, but there is no fee, and the company has a privacy policy that protects consumers.

Information on how to compare financial-aid awards is also available on the College Board's Big Future website.

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