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Making Sense of Your FAFSA Award Letter

August 21, 2007

by Paulina Mis

That I needed to fill out a FAFSA was a given. All counselors advised students to search for aid, and it seemed wrong to miss out on the opportunity—especially when other students came home with awards. Admittedly, applying was a bit confusing (but worth it). After receiving my FAFSA award letter, however, I was totally mystified. There were columns for college grants, Stafford Loans, Perkins Loans and Federal Work Study. I didn’t know if I had to accept all financial aid, if I could request more or if this was just my receipt. Out of fear for signing away my future home, I was almost ready to not sign anything. Thankfully, things became much easier after the first year (although the FAFSA part was still confusing). Knowing the basics made the award letter much easier to read.

Your award letter only reflects how much aid you are eligible for.

Using the information provided in your FAFSA, the amount your family can potentially contribute to your schooling is weighed against the actual cost of attendance. The award letter will reflect all federal, state and university offers of aid. This includes scholarships, college grants, and student employment. Financial aid gifts such as tuition waivers, assistantships, fellowships, resident hall advisor compensation and scholarships from organizations may not be listed until a school is notified about them. Your award letter is not a receipt. You will not take on a $5,000 loan by not responding, but you may lose some award money if you don’t. You can take advantage of as much or as little of this money as you wish.

What You May Find

If you see any college grants in your letter, that’s a good sign. Government grants are basically free money, and you should take advantage of it. Student loans are also common. Students may see awards for Stafford, PLUS, and Perkins Loans. While government loans are not free awards, they are a good bet for students who need to take out additional funding. The government provides students with interest rates that beat those offered by private loan companies. Federal Work Study is another pseudo award. Many colleges and universities will find work for students who would like to earn money. While such work is unlikely to make a student rich—much of it close to or commensurate with minimum wage—it is easy to find, and it is flexible. You are not required to accept any or all aid offered.Students may choose to decline some or all of their financial aid. Those who only wish to take advantage of free grant money may turn down the loans and federal work study funds. If a student needs $3,000 but is only offered $1,000 in grant money, they may use up their entire grant award as well as some or all of their loan award.Students unsatisfied with awards still have options.

Government Assistance May Not Be Enough

Students who feel they need more may speak to financial aid officials and request additional funds. Sometimes, schools may offer additional aid to coveted students or to those with new financial difficulties. Schools are not required to do this, so going in with a temper is not the best approach. Those who find no luck may still apply for additional scholarships, college grants and loans. Free grant and scholarship money is best, but additional, government-subsidized or private loans are available. Schools usually have a preferred-lender list for those who need to borrow, but it is important for students to conduct personal research on the side.


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