How To Know If You Received A Good Financial Aid Offer (2024)

For many families, college financial aid offers are a bit of a mystery. Some students get full-ride scholarships. On the other hand, there are families paying full price.

Financial aid packages can be confusing since they can include grants and other aid that does not need to be paid back, plus federal student loans that need to be repaid over time. Then you include scholarships and grants from the university, along with private scholarships, and it’s hard to follow the money.

How do you know if you’re actually getting a good financial aid offer? Are you actually overpaying for college?

What Is a Good Financial Aid Offer?

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the important first step when picking a school is figuring out the net price of attendance. Most colleges offer easy access to net price calculators that can help as a starting point. Once you receive your financial aid award, you can see your exact numbers.

The net price sounds simple: total cost of attendance minus financial aid.

Your financial aid award will have the total cost of attendance listed at the top.

From there, you'll subtract any scholarship or grant amounts listed in your financial offer from the cost of attendance.

Next, there will be another set of subtractions for student loans and work study aid.


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At the bottom, you will see the net cost for one year of higher education, which you'll need to fund with college savings you have, or the money you earn throughout the year.

How can you tell if a financial aid offer is good? While each financial aid package is different, consider the following:

A Good Balance Of Scholarships And Grants

When a school sends you a financial aid offer, you'll want to look for free money first (scholarships and grants), earned money second (work-study programs), and borrowed money last (federal student loans). Data journalist James Campigotto of College Rover adds that a good financial aid offer relies on a decent amount of money from scholarships and grants compared to student loans.

"Ideally, the offer should meet a significant portion of your demonstrated financial need through grants and scholarships, minimizing the amount you'll need to borrow," he says.

Campigotto adds that some red flags to watch out for include an excessive reliance on loans, a high expected family contribution that may be unrealistic for your circ*mstances, a lack of institutional aid from the college itself, or all of the above.

Christopher Hamilton of Hamilton Education also says to make sure you understand how loans are listed in a financial aid offer, especially since some schools intentionally obfuscate aid terms to confuse families. Hamilton says he is often surprised at how many families look at the “bottom line” figures for cost of attendance without realizing that loans make up much of the offer. This is definitely unfortunate, but it's not surprising since even the U.S. Department of Education lists federal student loans as a type of financial aid.

Subsidized Vs. Unsubsidized Student Loans

Campigotto also points out the difference between subsidized and unsubsidized federal student loans, and the impact it can make on college costs. Where subsidized student loans do not accrue interest while the student is in school, unsubsidized loans can and tend to result in much higher borrowing costs.

While not all students can qualify for subsidized federal student loans, this is still a factor to keep in mind as you compare college financial aid offers.

Renewable Aid Items

Financial advisor Jack Wang of Innovative Advisory Group says that families need to understand which items in a financial aid package can apply to multiple years and which ones will not. For example, colleges often front-load financial aid with things such as a grant for visiting the college, or filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. However, these items may only apply for the first year of school, thus increasing college costs for subsequent years.

Other nonrenewable aid items can include grants tied to living on campus, and even certain clubs. Some scholarships may also only apply to the first year of college, and not to subsequent years.

"While it is always great to get more aid, non-renewable aid simply means that the college will cost more in the future," says Wang.

Check TuitionFit To Parse College Costs

Many experts also recommend families use a platform called TuitionFit when assessing financial aid offers. Hamilton says TuitionFit leverages shared information to "bring transparency to a process that is usually very opaque."

This is especially important since schools want to protect their yield — the percentage of accepted applicants who decide to attend — in order to rank well in various college rankings surveys. TuitionFit helps individuals figure out what other families have received from a university in terms of aid, and this knowledge can be invaluable. This becomes even more true when families are considering multiple financial aid offers from different schools.

"Crowdsourcing these offers through TuitionFit makes a lot of sense for families because it gives them the sort of information that was once only the province of experts and insiders," says Hamilton.

The Bottom Line

Assuming families have carefully read the financial aid offers, and have distinguished loans from grants, Hamilton says the key to making a good assessment is comparing apples to apples. In other words, sit down to compare all the offers you have from various schools to see what your out-of-pocket costs actually are.

Hamilton adds that universities with similar rankings and desirability should be making similar offers. If they aren't doing that already, that's one area where you may have some negotiating power.

"If a university’s offer is significantly below that of a peer institution, you should bring that to their attention," he says, adding that most universities will match an award from a peer institution to avoid losing a candidate and harming their yield.

At the end of the day, the goal should be getting as much aid as possible and borrowing as little money as you can. This may come from a more expensive school that offers a more robust aid package, or from a more affordable state college that offers less aid. Either way, you'll need to do some research to know for sure.

How To Know If You Received A Good Financial Aid Offer (2024)


How To Know If You Received A Good Financial Aid Offer? ›

A Good Balance Of Scholarships And Grants

How do I find out how much financial aid I will receive? ›

If your FAFSA form is complete and fully processed, your estimated federal student aid and SAI will display under the “Eligibility Overview” tab of your online FAFSA Submission Summary. Before completing the FAFSA form, use the Federal Student Aid Estimator to estimate your SAI.

How do I know if I got accepted for financial aid? ›

After you submit your FAFSA form online, you can check its status immediately by going to and logging in with your FSA ID (account username and password). (Note: Only the student can check the status.)

How do I read my financial aid award? ›

Decoding Your Financial Aid Award Letter. The letter will include the annual total cost of attendance and a list of financial aid options. Typically, your financial aid package will be a mix of gift aid, meaning financial aid that doesn't have to be repaid, and loans, which you have to repay with interest.

How much of my financial aid should I accept? ›

To determine how much loan money to accept, make a list of your college and living expenses and the resources you'll have available to pay them; in other words, make a budget to help ensure you borrow only what you need.

What is the average FAFSA amount? ›

The amount of money you can get by filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) depends on your financial need. But, the maximum amount can be in the low tens of thousands of dollars per year. Average amounts are about $9,000, with less than half of that in the form of grants.

How do I know how much my financial aid refund will be? ›

Add tuition and fees and book allowance then Subtract tuition from the disbursed amount to get an estimated amount of your refund. disbursem*nt: If you have a balance, subtract it from the disbursed amount to get an estimated amount of your refund.

When should I expect my financial aid award letter? ›

Applicants admitted through Early Action often begin receiving award letters mid-winter to early spring, January- March. Award letter distribution to Regular Decision admits generally take place in the spring, March – May.

What happens after you accept financial aid award? ›

Generally, your school will give you your grant or loan money in at least two payments called disbursem*nts. In most cases, your school must give you your grant or loan money at least once per term (semester, trimester, or quarter).

How are financial aid awards determined? ›

Aid Amount: Who Decides and How

The financial aid staff starts by determining your cost of attendance (COA) at that school. They then consider your Student Aid Index (SAI) (2024-25 FAFSA form) or Expected Family Contribution (EFC) (2023–24 FAFSA form).

What is the max amount of financial aid you can receive? ›

Aggregate Maximum Loan Limits
Dependent Students$31,000 (no more than $23,000 subsidized)
Independent Students$57,500 (no more than $23,000 subsidized)
Graduate Students$138,500 (no more than $65,500 subsidized)
1 more row

Is it OK to ask for more financial aid? ›

If you don't feel you've been given enough financial aid, you can always ask for more. Maybe your family's finances have changed, or maybe you have a better offer from another school you can use to negotiate. In such situations, you can submit an appeal letter requesting additional financial aid.

What are the chances of getting approved for financial aid? ›

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, over 85 percent of students receive some form of financial aid. However, the amount students receive is based on different factors, such as the type of institution students attend (public versus private), as well as their household income.

How to check estimated FAFSA amount? ›

You can view your SAR by logging in to your FAFSA form and selecting “View SAR” from the My FAFSA page. Your EFC is calculated according to a formula established by law and considers your family's taxed and untaxed income, assets, and benefits (such as unemployment or Social Security).

What is the total amount of financial aid you can receive? ›

Federal financial aid limits
Maximum amount (2023-24)
Pell Grant$7,395 per year
Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG)$4,000 per year
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grant$3,772 per year
Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grant$6,973.49 per year
4 more rows
Apr 8, 2024

Does FAFSA know how much money I have? ›

The FAFSA will specifically ask “As of today what is the cash balance of checking, savings…” accounts for the student. Because the question is phrased “As of today” it leaves room for interpretation. If all money was pulled from checking and savings the day before the FAFSA was filed, the answer is zero.

Can I estimate my income for FAFSA? ›

If you (or your parents) haven't filed a tax return yet, then you (or your parents) can use the income estimator worksheet to estimate your adjusted gross income (AGI). To estimate your AGI, select the “Income Estimator” button.

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