4 Steps to Understanding and Comparing Financial Aid Offers

Students sitting on bench.

When I was in my last semester of high school, I checked my family’s mailbox just as much as I checked Snapchat and Instagram combined. It was the season of admissions decisions, and I was getting letters from all the colleges I’d applied to.

But once I’d gotten into several schools, my attention shifted to my e-mail inbox. I was waiting on information that was just as critical: my financial aid offer from each college. I knew that for me, the amount of financial aid I got from a school mattered just as much as the general admissions decision. I’d fallen in love with each of the schools I’d visited, and I knew I’d be happy anywhere. Basically, my choice was going to come down to the money.

Analyzing different aid packages can seem like way too much math for the end of your senior year—at least it did to me—but it’s important stuff. Check out my four steps to make this analysis simpler.

What to do once you get an aid offer

1. Make sure you know what you’re looking at.

The financial aid offer (sometimes called an award letter) typically comes in an e-mail from the college’s financial aid office. The offer includes the types and amounts of financial aid you’re eligible to receive from federal, state, private, and school sources. Be sure you understand what each type of aid is and whether it needs to be paid back. For example, when I got into UNC-Chapel Hill, my aid offer was a mix of scholarships, which I didn’t need to pay back, and private loans, which I did. My offer from Duke (booooo) had mainly the same stuff with some grant money mixed in.

Click to download PDF.

Click to download PDF.

Lucky for you, hundreds of colleges nationwide have signed on to present financial aid offers in a standardized format known as the Shopping Sheet. The Shopping Sheet is a standardized award letter template that makes it easy to compare financial aid offers from different schools. In addition to providing personalized information on financial aid and net costs, the Shopping Sheet also provides general information on the college, like graduation rate and loan default rate.

2. Find your out-of-pocket cost to attend.

How to Calculate & Pay Your Out-of-Pocket College Costs

Click to enlarge.

Now you’re going to want to see what you’ll be paying out of pocket if you decide to go to this school. Basically, your out-of-pocket cost (also known as net cost) is what it’ll cost you to attend minus the financial aid you receive that you don’t have to pay back, like grants and scholarships.

To find this amount, start with each school’s cost of attendance. Cost of attendance is a jumble of different expenses, from tuition to books to transportation. It even factors in a food allowance, but this is standardized across students, so it won’t take into account quirks like your $170-a-year Pop-Tart habit. From there, you want to subtract the free money (like grants and scholarships you were awarded) to come up with your out-of-pocket cost. This is the number you’ll want to compare across schools. Good news: If your college presents its aid offer as a Shopping Sheet, this will be calculated for you!

Your financial aid offer will probably include other types of aid too, like work-study and student loans. Remember that work-study is money that you earn through working, and it’s not applied directly to tuition. Also keep in mind that any loans are just borrowed money; you’ll have to pay them back with interest.  Finally, you don’t have to accept the loans you’re offered—and if you do accept a loan, it’s okay to accept less than the full amount offered.

3. Compare your aid offer with other schools’ offers.

Here’s the crux of the decision, where you pit aid offers against one another to see which school will be the most affordable. Your aid offer is unique to you and each school you apply to, so your aid amounts will vary from school to school. Obviously, cost of attendance will vary, too. This means that you’ll definitely find some discrepancies in what you’d pay out of pocket at the schools that admit you.

Another tool comes in handy here: The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has a great interface for comparing aid offers and attendance costs, with general college information lumped in. In short, it’s an interactive side-by-side of college Shopping Sheets.

CFPB Compare Colleges Sample

Click to use the CFPB’s comparison tool.

For me, I ended up choosing the school with the lowest out-of-pocket cost of attendance. Shopping Sheets weren’t around when I was deciding on a college, so I had to do net calculations myself for each school once all the aid offers had come in.

Looking for more in-depth tips? Head over to the U.S. Department of Education’s page on comparing aid offers and figuring out net price.

4. Compare the schools themselves.

Finally, it’s time to analyze the colleges a little more deeply to make sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck. Measures like graduation rate and income after graduation are great indicators of a college’s value. These benchmarks can help you come to a decision on where to enroll, especially if you’re down to just a few colleges with pretty similar net costs of attendance. Even if one college’s cost is a little higher, it might be worth paying a little more out of pocket if it means massively larger benefits later down the road.

College Scorecard - sample financial aid & debt

Click to use the College Scorecard.

When I was making this decision, I had about 27 different sites bookmarked on Internet Explorer (yes, Internet Explorer) as I tried to cobble together information from all over about the different schools I’d applied to. Nowadays, all this information is consolidated in the College Scorecard search tool.

The College Scorecard’s information is valuable no matter where you stand with your aid offers. College is a big investment, so you want to make sure that the school you pick is a good fit for you no matter what. But the resource comes in extra clutch when comparing aid offers doesn’t give you a clear winner.

All right, here are our takeaways: Keep an eye on your inboxes. Be on the lookout for different types of aid in your package. Figure out what you’re paying out of pocket (that includes loans!). Compare your offers. Compare your schools. And most of all, eat lots of Pop-Tarts.

Drew Goins is a senior journalism major at the University of North Carolina. He’s also an intern with the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office. Likes: politics, language, good puns. Dislikes: mainly kale.

Photo by Getty Images.


  1. Very reasonable and basic. But it should be written in bold that loans are not financial aid, and do not belong in any financial aid offer, unless highlighted that you will have to pay back every penny with interest, and that the debts are in general not dischargeable in bankruptcy.

    • We consider federal student loans financial aid. There are details about taking out loans (including interest) in entrance counseling, which all students taking out Direct Loans are required to complete.

      Federal student aid includes:
      Grants—financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid (unless, for example, you withdraw from school and owe a refund)
      Loans— borrowed money for college or career school; you must repay your loans, with interest
      Work-Study—a work program through which you earn money to help you pay for school

  2. This is good information. I only wish it was available to the unsuspecting students before they enrolled in Educational Management Corporation owned schools such as Art Institutes, Brown Mackie, Argosy and South University while they were under the threat of being sued by the DOJ for eleven billion dollars involving false claims for allegations of fraudalant reqruiting practices. As a result, very little has changed and the DoEd continues to supply their life blood in the form of Title IV student loans.

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