Comparing College Financial Aid Offers

Comparing College Financial Aid Offers

Zina Kumok

Zina Kumok is a personal finance writer and speaker with a background in financial literacy, student loans, credit scores, and investing. She's a three-time nominee and finalist for Best Personal Finance Contributor at the Plutus Awards. Zina paid off $28,000 in student loans in three years. Holding a bachelor's degree in journalism from Indiana University, she has worked for newspapers, magazines, and wire services. Her byline has appeared in Indianapolis Monthly, the Commercial Appeal, and the Associated Press, and as an expert, she's been featured in the Washington Post, Forbes, Fox Business, and Time. Additionally, Zina is a Certified Financial Health Counselor and Student Loan Counselor.

When you get acceptance letters from multiple colleges, there’s nothing wrong with taking some time to celebrate. But once the mental confetti has fallen, it’s time to decide: which school do you actually want to attend?

When you receive a college acceptance letter, you should also get your award letter. This document states how much you will receive in financial aid including student loans, grants, scholarships, work-study and more.

Simply put, this letter illustrates how much it will cost for you to attend that school - but it’s not as simple as looking at the final figure. Read below to learn how to decipher a financial aid offer and compare it with other offers.

Comparing Colleges

Renewable scholarships vs. one-time scholarships

Some schools offer scholarships that will automatically renew every year, as long as you meet the basic academic requirements. These can include having a certain GPA or keeping your full-time student status. Other scholarships may only be given on a one-time basis. Most university and college scholarships will be dispersed across the four years in which you are expected to complete your degree but will be dependent upon your performance and the requirements of the scholarship.

When you are comparing colleges and deciding which to attend, be sure to consider the total dollar amount of scholarships over all four years, including renewable scholarships and non-renewable. This will make sure you are looking at the big picture and total value of the offer.

Scholarship and grant requirements

If you have scholarships from multiple schools, look through their requirements to see if you will have trouble maintaining eligibility.

For example, let’s say one school requires that you maintain a 3.0 GPA to keep your scholarship, while another requires that you have a 3.5 GPA. In this case, it will be easier to keep the 3.0 scholarship than the 3.5 scholarship.

Also, many states offer grants if you are a local resident attending an in-state school. These grants are usually renewable for several years and have few barriers to entry.


Work-study is a federal financial aid program where students are given a part-time job on campus. Work-study positions are limited and not every college student who is eligible based on their finances will receive a spot.

Each college has their own number of work-study positions available, so you may receive a work-study job from one school and not another.

Cost of living

When comparing schools, the cost of living is often ignored. But the city where your school is located can have a huge impact on your total expenses.

“It costs more to live in a bigger city or on one of the coasts,” said Phil Schuman, Executive Director of Financial Wellness and Education at Indiana University. “We do see a lot more students flocking to the Midwest or to the South because they tend to be less expensive places to come to school.”

Before picking a school, make sure to compare housing, food and transportation costs. Also, factor in the cost of going home and multiply that by how often you’ll make the trip. In the end, you may find that a more expensive school in a cheaper city closer to home is a better deal than a less expensive school in a high-cost city far from home.

Talk to the financial aid office

If you have any questions about the award letter, contact the school’s financial aid office. They should be able to break down the award letter and explain what every line means.

If you think you deserve more need-based aid, you can also ask the department how to appeal your results to receive more funds. You may have to provide proof that shows that your family can’t afford to pay as much as it seems.

Consider networking opportunities

Most students attend college to get a degree, learn valuable skills and land a job after graduation. But many don’t realize that it’s the alumni network - not the piece of paper - that will help them get a gig.

When choosing a school, you should consider which has the right connections for your dream job. For example, if you want to work in entertainment, a school in Los Angeles is likely going to yield more networking opportunities than a school in Arizona. In that case, paying more to attend an LA school may be a better option.

If you’re not sure what you want to major in, then choosing an affordable school with a solid academic reputation is a better strategy.

We make it simple and match you to college scholarships you qualify for.