Congratulations on your college acceptances and success in receiving scholarships and need-based financial aid! If you don’t mind, I’d like to give you a little assignment.
Those financial aid statements and award offers are full of information, and it’s not always easy to compare offers. Some colleges may include student and parent loans on the actual financial aid statement, while others mention them in a cover letter accompanying the statement. The school’s financial aid and merit scholarship offers may arrive in different letters, or you may still be waiting to hear about one of the two.
So your assignment is this: create a spreadsheet, and move the information on each of these non-standard forms into a format that allows you to compare apples to apples, instead of grants to pears! Once you have your spreadsheet set up, follow the next two steps.
Step One: Determine your Personal Cost of Attendance
Go to the school’s website and find their standardized Cost of Attendance. There should be a table on their financial aid page that lists the various components of this very important figure. You’ll want to capture several data elements here:
- Tuition and Fees: You can probably just use the school’s cited tuition and fees for the program in which you will enroll. Most full-time students in the same class and major at a college will be charged the same tuition and fees.
- Room and Board: The school will probably include a figure that assumes you’ll be staying in a double room and skipping breakfast. See if you can find the school’s actual pricing for dormitories and meal plans, and write down the figure for the dorm and the meal plan you will most likely purchase. If you’ll live off-campus or with your family, write down estimates of these costs instead.
- Books and Supplies: The best way to get a sense of how much you’ll pay for these, based upon your major, is to ask students who are on campus now. If you don’t have access to them, use the school’s figure, but ask yourself if you are likely to be frugal and spend less, or do you know yourself well enough to predict you’ll spend more than the average student.
- Fun and Laundry(also known as Personal Expenses): You’ll have some out-of-pocket costs unrelated to the big budget items above. The school will set an estimate that you can use, or you can adjust it up or down based on your personal lifestyle.
- Travel and Transportation: Do your best to estimate what your plane, train, or bus costs will be if you’ll be going away to school, or your costs for things like public transportation, gas, insurance, and auto maintenance if you will commute.
Add these up to get your own personal Cost of Attendance for each school.
Step 2: Calculate out-of-pocket expenses at each school for you and your family.
Now that you know how much students who don’t receive grants or scholarships might pay at each school, it’s time to get an idea of how much you will. Gather up your financial aid statements and scholarship letters, and add them to the spreadsheet you created of your potential educational costs. Let’s limit this only to grants and scholarships that you won’t have to repay.
Subtract the grants and scholarships you have been offered at each college from the personalized cost of attendance you calculated for that school. This figure is an estimate of the out-of-pocket expenses that you and your family will need to cover using your savings, income as it is earned, and/or student and parent loans. This is the best way to compare the financial implications of choosing one school over another.
If your favorite school has higher out-of-pocket expenses than one of the others on the list, consider negotiating. Check out our previous blog for some helpful hints about how to ask for more money.