Skip to main content

What Does Your Financial Aid Award Letter Mean?

Shannon Vasconcelos

Written by Shannon Vasconceloson March 30th, 2012

I came to College Coach with close to 10 years of experience in college financial aid offices. I began my career at Boston University, where I counseled students and their parents on the financial aid process and reviewed undergraduate financial aid applications. At Tufts University, where I served as assistant director of financial aid, I developed expertise in the field of health professions financial aid. I was responsible for financial aid application review, grant awarding and loan processing, and college financing and debt management counseling for both pre- and post-doctoral dental students. I have also served as an active member of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrator’s Early Awareness and Outreach Committee, coordinating early college awareness activities for middle school students; as a trainer for the Department of Education’s National Training for Counselors and Mentors, educating high school guidance counselors on the financial aid process; and as a volunteer for FAFSA Day Massachusetts, aiding students and parents with the completion of online financial aid applications.
Learn More About Shannon

What Does Your Financial Aid Award Mean?

Grants A financial aid award letter can come with a lot of conflicting emotions:  excitement, disappointment, and, more often than not, confusion.  There is little uniformity among award letters, so comparing offers between schools often feels like comparing apples and oranges.  If you want to be a discerning consumer, you need to understand the differences between three main types of aid — grants & scholarships, loans, and work study — and understand which questions to ask about each.  It’s important to compare apples with apples to ascertain which college will provide your family the best value:
    • Grants & Scholarships.  Whether a need-based “grant” or a recruitment “scholarship,” an award of this type is free money.  It is a direct discount off the price of enrollment and reduces the bottom-line.  The catch to grants and scholarships, however, is what it takes to maintain them.  Is the funding a one-time award, or is it renewable for all four years?  Are there strings attached, like maintaining a certain GPA?  Make sure you read the fine print when considering any grant or scholarship offer and contact the financial aid office to make sure you understand all scholarship renewal policies.
    • Loans.  Unlike grants and scholarships, student loans don’t reduce the bottom-line — in fact, they generally increase costs (think interest charges).  Compare your loan terms to those of other loans you can access (through your state or home equity line, for example), and know that you can reduce or decline any loan offered.  And if a college awards an Unsubsidized Direct Loan or Direct PLUS Loan as part of your financial aid package, don’t be fooled into thinking the package is particularly generous.  These government loans are available to nearly all US citizens at most colleges.
    • Work Study.  The final piece of aid you might see on an award letter is work study.  The key difference between work study and other types of financial aid is that it does not provide up-front funding to pay the college bill, as do grants and loans.  A student is simply given the opportunity to work on campus and earn a certain amount of money throughout the year.  You still need to find the job, work the hours, and get paid weekly, as with any other job.
Once you understand the difference between gift aid, like grants & scholarships, which reduce your college costs, and self-help aid, like loans and work study, the final step in deciphering your award packages is to subtract the gift aid offered by each institution from the cost of that particular school (include tuition, fees, room & board, travel, etc.).  A pricey school with a generous award package might still end up being more costly than an inexpensive school with a less generous package, but once you’ve ascertained your bottom line cost at each institution, you’ll be better equipped to determine which college will provide the best value for your education dollar.   201205_whitepaper


Interested in learning more about how our college admissions counseling services can help your student succeed?

Call 877-402-6224 or complete the form for information on getting your student started with one of our experts.

Inclusion Matters Here Pride Flag