There was an interesting article in The New York Times today offering a rare behind-the-scenes look at a university financial aid office. If you're still baffled by your financial aid award letter, or you just are curious to find out how it was created, this article is a good read. While it focuses on Boston University, an elite and expensive private college, many of the processes discussed carry over to other schools, both public and private.
The article does an especially good job of explaining how financial need is determined, using the FAFSA, the CSS profile and an institution's policies. It also includes a couple of concrete examples of financial aid packages and family circumstances that provide a valuable window into the logic behind determining financial aid awards, especially for families who may have received markedly different offers from different institutions. While I'm not sure how universal the process of weighing aid so heavily in the favor of the top tier of students is, it definitely provides support for the idea of broadening your college search and applying to a wide range of colleges and comparing financial aid offers.
The complex nature of college financial aid awards, as well as the common practice of "gapping," where the school does not cover a student's entire financial need, also make a compelling argument for doing a thorough scholarship search. While some of the largest college scholarships and grants come from universities, there's no guarantee you'll land a full-tuition scholarship anywhere you apply. Winning scholarships from other organizations gives you more flexibility in where you attend college, as well as a greater level of certainty about how much help you'll receive.