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Financial Aid Award Letter Comparison Tool

By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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Updated: January 31st, 2024
Financial Aid Award Letter Comparison Tool

The long-awaited moment has come: you received your admissions decision and you’re in! Congratulations on gaining admission to one of your college choices. But there’s more to that letter than just your admissions decision. You’ll also get an award letter that spells out your financial situation should you choose to attend that college. Our award letter comparison tool can help you compare each school’s financial aid offer side-by-side to make an educated decision.

Jump straight to the comparison tool

How to use the comparison tool

Every award letter looks a little bit different, even though they all contain the same information. Our award letter comparison tool will help you standardize the information across different award letters to compare the costs you would incur at each school.

In order to use the tool, you’ll have to go through each letter and look for a few key figures. You’ll input those terms into the calculator and then it’ll show you how much each option would cost, as well as the sum of your award, and how much of that award would need to be repaid.

Also see: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

Defining key terms

In order to compare different award letter offers, your first step should be to comb through each letter and pull the necessary information. Some of these terms can go by different names in different letters, so let’s get into a few of the figures that commonly go by a few different names.

Direct Subsidized & Unsubsidized Loans

Direct Subsidized & Unsubsidized Loans are two of the most advantageous loans that a student can take out. The federal government offers these loans to students; Subsidized Loans are only for students with demonstrated financial need, whereas any student who fills out the FAFSA can take out Unsubsidized Loans.

These loans are also referred to as Stafford Loans. So, if you see Stafford Loans listed in your award, you can use that term interchangeably with Direct Loans. Unsubsidized Direct Loans are the same thing as Unsubsidized Stafford Loans, and Subsidized Direct Loans are the same thing as Subsidized Direct Loans.

Grants & scholarships

Grants and scholarships are often used interchangeably and they share a few similarities. Effectively, they mean the same thing for a student; the student receives money for their college education and they don’t have to pay it back. However, grants are typically awarded based on meeting a certain set of qualifications with which a student automatically gains eligibility. Scholarships are typically chosen by a scholarship committee and based more on achievements or academic excellence.

Net cost of attendance

Using the data you input, we calculate this number for you automatically. In this calculator, net cost of attendance is equal to your family’s expected contribution subtracted from the total cost of attendance. So, it’s the amount that financial aid and personal contributions has to cover in order to make that school a feasible option for you.

Award Letter Comparison Tool

College Name
Cost of attendance
?

This is the “sticker price” of college and includes tuition, room and board, books, and supplies.

$
$
$
Expected family contribution
?

This is the amount of money that a college estimates your family can afford. EFC is determined by your FAFSA and any other financial aid forms.

$
$
$
Net cost of attendance
?

This is your expected family contribution subtracted from the school's sticker price

$
$
$

Gift aid that doesn't need to be repaid

Grants
?

These are typically awarded by the federal government, state government, your college, or a nonprofit and do not need to be repaid.

$
$
$
Scholarships
?

These are awarded by colleges and private organizations and do not need to be repaid.

$
$
$
Other gift aid
?

This can include tuition benefits or other types of financial aid that doesn’t need to be repaid and isn’t a grant or scholarship.

$
$
$
Work-study
?

This includes both federal work-study, as well as part-time employment you might have.

$
$
$
Total Financial Aid
$
$
$

Student loans that must be repaid with interest

Direct Subsidized Loan
?

These loans are offered by the federal government and are preferable for students because the interest is paid while you’re enrolled in college.

$
$
$
Direct Unsubsidized Loan
?

These loans are offered by the federal government and will accrue interest while you’re enrolled in college.

$
$
$
Parent PLUS Loan
?

These loans are offered by the federal government and allow parents to borrow money for their child’s college expenses. These loans typically have higher interest rates than other federal student loans.

$
$
$
Private Student Loans
?

These loans are not offered by the federal government and instead borrowed from banks, credit unions, or other lenders.

$
$
$
Total Student Loans
$
$
$
College Name
Net cost of attendance
$
$
$
Amount of award that’s gift aid
Amount of award that must be repaid

Interpreting your results

Net cost

Using this tool, you’ll be able to see three important figures for each school that you compare. The first of those is the net cost. This is the amount of the sticker price that remains to be paid after factoring in your EFC. It may seem obvious, but the lower this figure is, the better! Your financial burden in college will be determined largely by this number.

Keep in mind, however, that this figure does not take into account your financial aid packages. So, a high net cost at a school that offers a huge scholarship might actually be a better financial situation than a low net cost at a school that offers no grants or scholarships. Remember to make sure not to make your decision based on only one factor.

Amount of award that’s gift aid

This figure is a very important part of the tool; it shows how much of the money you used to bridge the gap between your parents’ contribution and the cost of college is a gift and requires no repayment. The higher this figure is, the better. Post-graduation you will be thankful if you choose a school that does not require taking out a significant amount of debt, and instead, pays with grants and scholarships.

Amount of award that must be repaid

So, you’ve managed to bridge the gap between the sticker price and your family’s ability to pay! That’s great news, but unfortunately, the decision does not end there. In order to plan for a healthy financial future, you’ll want to ensure that your financial aid does not involve shouldering an unmanageable sum of student loans.

This figure shows you what percentage of your financial aid will need to be repaid. The lower this figure is, the better. Financial aid is great, but when it requires repayment, it could put you under significant financial stress in the future. Especially if the loans you are taking out are private loans with unfavorable terms, you could regret the decision down the line.

Consider return on investment

Remember, these figures aren’t everything. Although it is a good idea to think long and hard before taking on a great amount of debt, sometimes, that debt can pay off. Remember that over your lifetime, you will leverage your college degree and earn a substantially higher salary than you would had you not gone to college.

And remember that when it comes to future wages, not all colleges are on equal footing. Upon graduation, you’ll probably be looking at much higher wage prospects if you went to an Ivy League than if you went to a lesser-known school.

So, if you gain admission to a highly prestigious school but they offer you a less generous award package, you may still want to consider attending. Taking on substantial debt is never ideal, but if you are doing it in order to earn a Harvard degree, you might not end up regretting it.

Frequently asked questions about financial aid awards

Can I negotiate my student aid award letter?

Yes! If you are unable to make your financial aid package work at a school, you can try writing a financial aid appeal letter to increase the offer. Once you gain admission to a school, you know that the school wants you to attend, and if you feel that they judged your finances unfairly, you have the potential to change their minds.

How do I compare student aid award letters?

When you get your college decisions back and begin to compare financial outlooks, you’ll want to compare your award letters. You should be comparing the schools’ total costs, the amount of aid they offer you, and the type of aid that they are offering. Our calculator is a perfect tool for looking at these statistics side-by-side for up to three schools at a time.

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