The fat envelopes have arrived! You've been admitted to several of your chosen schools—congrats! If you've submitted a FAFSA , it won't be too long before you receive additional mail – your award offers. Examine each carefully; a cursory glance at the figures can be misleading.

Your aid packages are designed to bridge the gap between what college costs and what you and your family can afford to contribute. (For a more detailed explanation, read How Does Federal Student Aid Work? ) When you review and compare award packages, there are two criteria to take into account:

  1. how much of your need is being met


  1. how your need is being met

The total size of your package is not a good measure of its value! Sound contradictory? Read the award scenarios below.

Two colleges offer you admission: Jefferson and Roosevelt. Their costs of attendance are respectively $20,000 and $40,000. And let's say that your estimated family contribution (EFC) is $9,000. Here's the breakdown:

Cost of Attendance $20,000 $40,000
Your EFC $9,000 $9,000
Your Need $11,000 $31,000

Your EFC always remains the same. Your need, on the other hand, varies dramatically. Let's see how this plays out when your award arrives.

Your Financial Reward $11,000 $25,000

Roosevelt offers a hefty award package—more than double the amount offered by Jefferson. But there's a problem. Roosevelt has not met all of your need. If you decide to enroll in Roosevelt, you will need to pay $9,000 to cover your EFC and another $6,000 in unmet need. Jefferson, on the other hand, has met your entire need. In this instance, the bigger award is not the better award.

Your Financial Reward $7,000 $31,000

Now as you probably recall, the cost of attendance is much higher at Roosevelt than it is at Jefferson. But when you factor in their award package, the more expensive school becomes the more affordable school! (If worried about the sticker price of college, read The Cost of Your Education.)

Grants $1,500 $0
Scholarship $4,500 $10,000
Work Study $500 $1,000
Loans $1,500 $20,000
Total Awards$8,000$31,000

This scenario should give you pause. Jefferson didn't meet your entire need. After $6,000 EFC, you will need to come up with an additional $3,000, probably from a private education loan . Roosevelt has met your entire need, but the award is very loan-heavy. So which award package is the better one? In this case, that's entirely you and your family's decision.

Making a Decision

Let's reiterate. When you review and compare award packages, the two criteria to take account of are:

  1. How much of your need is being met.
  2. How your need is being met.

These are the financial considerations.

  • If your dream school's award offer is loan-heavy, should you go to your second choice?
  • If your dream school doesn't cover your entire need, should you borrow even more with a private loan?

Only you and your family can answer these questions.

Our advice:

Before you accept an award offer and enroll in college, be sure you know what you are committing to and the consequences of your decision.