Written by Adam Connolly, VP of Enrollment Management at Coker University
Your financial aid award letter is one of the most important documents involved in your college decision process. Unfortunately, it can also be one of the most confusing. In Coker's Office of Admissions, our goal is to help our incoming students make sense of all available financial aid options so you can make well-informed decisions for yourself and your family. When you receive your financial aid award letter from a college or university, there are six key points you should keep in mind.
1. Always start with the free money.
The two most important words you want to look for on your financial aid award letter are scholarships and grants. Usually, these terms mean you're being given free money from the institution, the federal government, or the state. These types of awards do not need to be paid back, and they're usually renewable each year (barring any major changes to your FAFSA information).
2. Compare out-of-pocket expenses, not the amount of aid offered.
It's common for students and their families to compare how much scholarship money each institution is awarding them. Remember to look at the total direct cost—including tuition, room, board, and fees—which will not be equal at every school where you're accepted. Instead of focusing on how many dollars a school is giving you, the more important number is how much that school will end up costing you out-of-pocket. Some colleges and universities don't hand out sky-high scholarship funding, but the scholarships they do provide will actually cover a larger percentage of the cost of your education. It doesn't matter what a school costs; it matters what a school costs you.
3. Confirm that the financial aid you're offered will be available for a full four years.
It's always great to see a handful of scholarships and grants on your award letter. The more free money, the better. Right? However, it's important to always confirm with your institution that all of the awarded money is renewable each year for at least four years. You don't want any surprises in your student account in your sophomore or junior year!
4. Know the difference between a subsidized and unsubsidized loan.
The two most common student loan options both come from the federal government. These are deferred payment loans, meaning you don't have to start paying them back until 3-6 months after you graduate from college. They can be deferred even longer if you go on to be a full-time student in graduate school. There are two types of federal loan: subsidized and unsubsidized. The big difference between the two is the way they accrue interest. Subsidized loans do not build any interest while you're still in school. In contrast, unsubsidized loans still allow you to defer payment while you're a full-time student—but interest builds during that time. Both of these loans can be good options for student borrowers, but you should understand the difference between the two.
5. Be mindful that the Parent Plus Loan is not automatically added to your award.
When you're looking over a financial aid award letter, make sure that the school hasn't already added the Parent Plus Loan to your total. In some cases, institutions will tout their award as a "full ride," when in reality, they are assuming a Parent Plus Loan will cover remaining expenses. A legal parent of the student still has to apply and be approved for a Parent Plus Loan, which is provided through the government and based on credit history. After approval, parents need to decide if they want to take out a loan to cover the balance of their student's college costs. A college or university should give you information about alternative loan options, including the Parent Plus Loan, but that information should not already be attached to the award itself.
6. Remember the value of your college experience.
When all is said and done, you want to find yourself at a school where you will be well positioned to succeed. Weigh the cost of your education with the experience and outcomes you'll receive. At Coker, for example, students engage in discussion-based round table learning and personalized academic advising. The close-knit community is part of our unique value for the right student. We also work hard to enhance the student experience through programs like our AccessCoker digital technology initiative (which gives each new student an iPad and Apple Pencil) and the Cobras in the Capital trip to Washington, D.C. Faculty and staff with specific areas of expertise or extraordinary dedication to teaching are another valuable aspect of the college experience. Your college of choice should be affordable and accessible over the next few years, but it should set you up with skills and personal connections that will benefit you in the long-term, as well.
Ready to learn more? Our friendly staff is available to help! Contact Coker's admissions team at email@example.com or 843-383-8393 with any questions about your financial aid award letter, or the Coker student experience.