How to Decode Your College Financial Aid Offers

This time of year, high school seniors and parents are on the edge of their seats waiting for college acceptance letters — and to learn how much school will cost. Like many families during this unprecedented time, how parents and students approach paying for college may be evolving. One important document that will help with the college decision-making process is the financial aid offer. And now, decoding it is more important than ever.

First, you filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Each year, you should fill out the FAFSA as early as possible (it’s available for the new academic year on Oct. 1).

What happens after the FAFSA?

After your FAFSA is processed, you can view your Student Aid Report (SAR) — not to be confused with the financial aid award letters from each school you designated on the FAFSA. The SAR summarizes the information from your FAFSA and should be checked for accuracy. It will state your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which helps determine eligibility for federal student aid. If you need to correct the SAR, go to

After your child starts receiving letters of acceptance from schools, you’ll receive financial aid award letters from those schools, usually around March or April.

What’s on financial aid offer letters?

You may find your child’s financial aid offers confusing. You’re not alone. In a recent College Ave Student Loans parent survey conducted by Barnes & Noble College Insights, 42% of parents who received a letter found aspects of the aid offer letters confusing, and 68% agreed that terms and layout of these letters varied from school to school, making it hard to compare them.

One tool you can use to compare offers is Finaid’s Advanced Award Letter Comparison Tool.

Cost of attending school

Cost of attendance (COA) is an estimate of tuition and fees, room and board, and some other costs. Some letters use the term “net price” or “net cost” to describe the cost of attending for the academic year. It includes tuition, plus on-campus housing and dining. Many costs may or may not be listed, such as books, clubs, athletic and student activity fees, plus travel to and from school.

Scholarships and grants

If your child was awarded a federal grant (such as a Pell grant) or scholarships from the college or university, they will be listed on your award letter. These do not need to be repaid and are applied directly to the school’s tuition.

Work-study programs

If your child indicated interest in work-study on the FAFSA and qualifies for a work-study program, he or she can work part-time on campus to help cover expenses. This is money that does not need to be repaid.

Federal loans

On the financial aid award letter, you’ll likely see loans for the student and/or parent. These loans will need to be repaid. For loans in the student’s name, the payments typically begin after the student leaves school. The amount students can borrow is limited and depends on factors such as the year in school.

The most common type of student loans are Direct Loans, which offer low fixed interest rates, and you may or may not be charged interest while in school depending on your financial need. Parent PLUS loans are an option parents can use to help children pay for college. Repayment on Parent PLUS loans typically starts right away, not after the student leaves school.

What if all costs aren’t covered?

Even families who qualify for aid may find the total cost isn’t covered. In the College Ave Student Loans parent survey conducted by Barnes & Noble College Insights, 68% of parents said paying for 100% of college was an unattainable goal.
You can write a letter to the school appealing your aid package in light of family circumstances. Of the 21% of parents who received an aid offer in the study and appealed it, 61% were successful in getting money from the school.

Additional options:

  • Private loans

    To cover the gap between financial aid and college costs, College Ave Student Loans are customized to fit the individual needs of each student and family. Compare loan options and begin your application.

  • Live at home

    On-campus room and board can be a substantial portion of college expenses.

  • Attend community college 

    Many community colleges have transfer agreements with 4-year institutions. Some students can take courses at a lower cost in the first 1 to 2 years, then transfer to their desired school to complete their degree. Have a clear plan and make sure credits will transfer if this sounds like the path for you.

College Ave Students Loans simplifies the student loan experience. Visit the College Ave student loan calculator to explore the best ways to save money and see estimated monthly loan payments.


Which product best suits you?

Interested in building your credit?

Set sights on a brighter financial future by establishing a positive credit history easily and safely with Ambition Card.

Ambition Card by College Ave
Find My Application