It's easy to get overwhelmed at the thought of paying thousands of dollars over the next few years. It’s also easy to overlook some of the other costs of college, which unfortunately, aren’t always covered by financial aid. But don’t forget that there's financial aid available to help you.
The first step in paying for college is figuring out how much it actually costs. You’ll want to consider tuition and housing along with books and school supplies, transportation, a computer, and others costs, like entertainment money.
To help estimate the cost of college, check out these resources:
- College MatchMaker. This is a useful college search engine provided by the College Board. Although it's designed to help you find a college that matches your interests and needs, it also includes a ton of information about college costs, including official estimates provided by colleges using historical data. It also allows you to compare costs of multiple colleges side by side.
- College Cost Projector. This calculator from FinAid.org can help you estimate how much a college's tuition might be in the future based on what it is today. It can be very helpful if you’ve got a few years until you’re don't plan on going to college for several years.
- FAFSA4caster.ed.gov. This free tool created by the U.S. Department of Education allows you to receive an estimate of your federal financial aid to help you plan for college costs.
Compare Award Letters
If you receive award letters from more than one college, you’ll want to compare them so you’ll know which is providing the best financial aid package for your needs. Award letters can be tricky to compare because you may receive more loans from one school and grants from another. Because grants don’t need to be repaid, they’re a better option. Focus on how much you would need to pay above and beyond the financial aid you are offered.
For help with understanding your financial aid package, visit financialaidletter.com for sample letters and tips on cutting costs.
Also, don’t forget to check deadlines! It’s important to make award decisions on time.
Accept an Award Package
When accepting your award package, you don’t have to accept the entire award outlined in the award letter. You can accept all of it, some of it, or none of it. If you accept the entire offer, sign the letter and return it. Before you mail it, however, make a copy of it for your records. If you only want to accept part of it, contact the school’s financial aid office. Your school may use an electronic award system; follow the instructions for accepting or rejecting the award.
Once you have accepted the award, you’ll be contacted by your school’s financial aid office around the beginning of the semester. You’ll sign the papers needed for the college to apply the financial aid to your tuition or room and board. Any money from Federal Work-Study will be provided based on your job and your school.
Bridge the Gaps
It may happen that your financial aid package is less than the total cost of attending college, which means you’ll have to come up with this unmet need. You have a lot of options. A summer or part-time job might provide enough income or savings. Finding ways to keep costs down while school—maybe by getting a roommate to decrease living expenses or living close to campus to reduce transportation costs—will help you in the long run. You and your parents may also consider taking out additional loans, like a PLUS loan or private loans.