Show Me the Money!

Your FAFSA is done! Congratulations. Once your application is complete, the colleges on your list should automatically get your FAFSA information. At any point, you can add colleges to your list or take them off. Now you need to work with the colleges to get the financial aid you need…

Your FAFSA is done and has been submitted. Looking to enroll in the fall of 2023 or spring 2024? Make sure the colleges have the information they need. 

So what comes next? First, it is important to make sure that the government received your form and that the information is being processed smoothly. You will need to monitor your email and the FAFSA website closely. 

Then wait for your college acceptances! Each school will provide you with a financial aid letter estimating how much your first year will cost — along with a package of possible grants, loans and work-study money to make it possible for you to attend. It is important to compare these offers carefully so you choose the best college for you and your budget.

Read on for what to expect…

Important First Steps: Make sure your FAFSA has been submitted successfully and is being processed. If all goes well, your colleges will get your FAFSA information within a few days. Next…

Check your FAFSA Student Aid Report, or SAR, one more time to make sure there are no last-minute complications.

If you see an asterisk (*) or C on your Student Aid Report, the colleges will need to verify your information. This is a routine check. Nothing to be afraid of. But it is very important to watch your email for instructions from your colleges. They will need to paperwork from you. Get answers about verication below.

Has your family income or household changed this past year due to COVID-19 or other circumstances? Reach out to the financial aid officers at the colleges you are most interested in. Let them know what has happened and how you family’s finances have changed. They may be able to offer more aid.

Get Answers: FAFSA Verification

Why am I being asked to prove this information is accurate?

What does verification involve?

What questions may be asked?

Can I send the same information to all of the colleges?

If I get a verification form, that means the college has accepted me, right?

How to Read a Financial Aid Letter

It’s the day you’ve been waiting for. Your first college acceptance letter has arrived! You will also get another letter telling you what the college costs and some ways to pay for it. This is your “financial aid package.” It is important to read it carefully and compare it to any other offers you receive.

Learn how to read and compare these letters below. Here are new terms you may see:

Cost of Attendance: The total cost of attending college. This will include direct costs paid to the college (like tuition and fees) and often indirect costs (like books and transportation).

Expected Family Contribution: The amount you and your family are expected to contribute toward college each year, based on your FAFSA form.

Scholarships or Grants: Free money for college awarded by the government, colleges or private organizations. One example is the federal Pell Grant for students with financial need.

Work-Study: Federal money you can earn by taking a part-time job on campus.

Federal Direct Government Loans: These loans come in two forms: subsidized and unsubsidized. The subsidized loans are for students in need and have easier repayment terms.

Parent PLUS Loans: These are federal loans that parents can use to cover education expenses.

Private Loans: These are offered by private lenders such as banks. They often charge higher fees and interest rates than federal student loans, and repayment terms may not be as flexible.

First, Check the Price Tag

It’s time to get real. You need to figure out what college will cost. This will be different for each school.

To get started, take a close look at your financial aid letter. Look for a section called “estimated costs.” Your letter should list the costs you are likely to face. But some colleges do a much better job of this than others. You may have to hunt for this information or, for personal costs, do your own estimates. Here are some costs to keep in mind…

College Costs

These are the costs that the colleges bill you for directly. There are only a few, but they are the big-ticket items:

Tuition and fees

Room and board, if you are living in a dormitory

Personal Costs

These are the expenses you pay out of pocket. The good news is you can control them by being careful. The bad news is that these costs can add up. Try to budget for real life.

Books and supplies

Housing, if you are living away from home but not in a dormitory

Food, snacks and lots of coffee

Transportation, either daily or for home visits

Fun and entertainment

Clothes, toiletries

Comparing College Costs Correctly

Many colleges list grants, loans and other support per semester, but college costs and your expected contribution are for the entire year. Be sure to compare costs and aid for the same time period. And do your best to remember everything. Need some help? Our friends at uAspire have a College Cost Calculator that we love.

Next, Look for the Free Money

Most colleges will offer some sort of aid to help you pay for school. This is the most important—and exciting!—part of your financial aid letter. You will probably see a short list of grants, work-study and loans. Look at each line carefully. All money can be helpful for college, but some forms of financial aid are better than others.

In general, you want to start by looking for money you do not need to pay back, like grants and scholarships. Then consider more costly options, like loans, only as needed. Below is a short list of the most common forms of “free” money along with federal work-study opportunities.

Federal Grants

The two most common are the Pell Grant and the Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (look for “SEOG” on your letter). Both are based on financial need.

State Grants

Many states offer help to students who stay in their home state for college. New York, for example, has the popular Tuition Assistance Program (look for “TAP”). Ideally, you put in applications for the state grants when you were filling out your FAFSA form. State programs are often competitive and awarded on a “first come, first served” basis.

College Grants and Private Scholarships

Many colleges offer grants based on merit (such as a high grade point average or strong test scores), financial need or athletic ability. Private groups also offer free money for college, but you have to find it and apply for it. It won’t be provided through your aid letter. Look online or talk to a college counselor for more info.

Federal Work-Study

Students with financial need may be offered the opportunity to work on campus. As with any job, you are paid for the number of hours you work. You can use the money any way you want. Your financial aid letter will tell you how much money you can earn under this program, but it is up to you to find a job and work the hours needed to get this money.

Finally, Think About Loans

College costs have been rising steadily, so many students need to take out at least a small loan to get by. Nobody likes debt. But you will probably make more money with a college degree than without one, so loans can be an investment in your future.

Good rules to keep in mind: If you or your parents need to borrow, borrow as little as possible. Be sure to use government-backed loans first. They are cheaper to pay back and more forgiving if you need extra time. Private loans and credit cards should be a last resort. Here are the options you may see in your financial aid letter, beginning with the best options first. 

Federal Direct “Subsidized” Loans: Subsidized loans are given to college students based on need. The interest costs can be lower than other government loans and you have more time before you need to start paying them back.

Federal Direct “Unsubsidized” Loans: Unsubsidized loans are available to anyone, but your total repayment costs are higher than with the subsidized loan unless you begin paying it back while you are in school.

Parent PLUS Loans: These are government-backed loans that parents can use to help you pay for college. But your parents need to have a good credit rating and interest rates can be high. In theory, parents can borrow as much as you need. But just like you, they should be careful about taking on too much debt.

Private Loans: You can borrow money from banks or other financial institutions, but shop carefully. Fees and interest rates can be high, and you usually need to start paying back the loan while you are still in school.

Caution: Student loans must be repaid. The government did forgive some student debt this past year, but this is unusual. It is also rare to get help through bankruptcy. You can reduce or delay payments if you have a government-backed loan, but this will likely increase your interest payments and the total amount you owe.

Get Answers: Student Loans & College Debt

What do I need to know about student loans and paying them back?

How much money can I borrow in federal student loans?

How much is it okay to borrow?

Comparing Colleges: Do the Math

The waiting is over. You have your acceptance letters and financial aid offers. Now you need to decide which school to attend. Money matters. You should choose a school you can afford.

What follows is a lesson on comparing two financial aid packages. It will give you a sense of what to look for. But remember, every package will look different. Sometimes they are confusing or incomplete. Call a college financial aid officer or talk to an adult you trust if you need help.

We’ll compare two fictitious schools: BigBucks University and LowerCost College. Let’s assume your Expected Family Contribution will be $2,000. Now we need to look at the costs and the various types of aid to see which school is the better deal.

BigBucks University

Cost of Attending (1st Year) $62,000

Grants and Scholarships

BigBucks University Scholarship 38,000
Pell Grant 3,500
State Grant 3,000

Net Price $17,500

Loans and Work-Study

Federal Direct Subsidized Loan 1,500
Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan 4,000
Federal Work-Study 3,000

Final Calculation

Total Cost of Attending $62,000
Total Financial Aid Offered – $53,000
Expected Family Contribution –$2,000

The gap you need to fill this year $7,000

(Total loan debt over four years = $22,000)

LowerCost College

Cost of Attending (1st Year) $22,000

Grants and Scholarships

LowerCost College Scholarship 5,000
Pell Grant 3,500
State Grant 3,000

Net Price $10,500

Loans and Work-Study

Federal Direct Subsidized Loan 1,500
Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loan 4,000
Federal Work-Study 2,000

Final Calculation

Total Cost of Attending $22,000
Total Financial Aid Offered – $19,000
Expected Family Contribution –$2,000

The gap you need to fill this year $1,000
(Total loan debt over four years = $22,000)

Cost of Attendance: BigBucks is more, LowerCost is less. (Important: Do your own budget to get a true sense of your costs. Colleges often do a poor job of estimating personal living expenses in their figures.)

Both schools offer a lot of Scholarship and Grant Support. Colleges look at both financial need and your academics to determine how much to offer—and you did well! But call and ask for details. Is the free money guaranteed for only the first year, or longer? Does the school require that you get good grades? Know the rules.

Next, look at the Net Price, the cost of college that remains after these grants. This is the amount you will need to raise—through loans, work-study or other means.

Now look at the Loans. Remember, some loans are cheaper and easier to manage than others. You want the lowest-cost loans possible. The amount you can get through Federal Direct Loans will be the same, but schools can use their judgment for government-backed loans. (Also, consider total loan debt. Add up the loans offered and multiply by the years it will take to get a degree. At both colleges above, this is $5,500 in loans X 4 years = $22,000.) And look at the Work-Study money offered. This is money you can earn for personal expenses with a campus job. But you need to find the job and work the hours.

Finally, look at the bottom line. What is the gap you will need to fill for the first year? You will need to find this money somewhere: college savings, loans from your family—or another job (eek!) on top of your work-study hours.

Be sure to add up the total amount you might need to borrow to get your degree. In this case, BigBucks University requires more loans…and has a larger gap to fill. If these costs are too much for you—and you really want to go to this school—call the college office. You may be able to appeal your package and get more aid. College costs are very important to consider in choosing a school. But also make sure it is a high-quality school that you will enjoy. Weigh all the factors before saying “yes” to any college.


You have successfully filled out your FAFSA form. You have financial support. You’re on your way to college. Have a great year. Be sure to keep all the information that you have collected—and stay connected to our website. We’ll have advice for you as you start college. And you’ll need to fill out a FAFSA form again next year!

Translate »