Seniors — You’ve got two weeks before you need to deposit at the college of your choice in order to secure your place in the Class of 2022. May 1 is right around the corner. No doubt you’re rethinking your priorities and revisiting college campuses to determine the best “fit”. That’s great, but in your enthusiasm, don’t forget about “financial fit”.
Unless college affordability is of no concern, you need to carefully scrutinize the financial aid award letter each college sent you to evaluate what is really being offered.
Not All Award Letters Are Created Equal
There is no standard form for college financial aid award letters. Different colleges include different figures making comparison difficult. All award letters include the cost of attending, but some will include only direct costs such as tuition and fees as well as room and board, while others will include indirect costs such as transportation, books and personal expenses. Be sure to compare total Cost of Attendance (both direct and indirect costs) figures.
Understand the Difference Between “Free Money” with “Self-Help” Aid
Scholarships and grants are “free money”. This is money that is given to you. In scrutinizing offers of free money, you need to know if the gifts are renewable for each year in college and, if so, under what circumstances. What happens if your financial circumstances change? What gpa must you maintain to keep your scholarship? Are you required to take a certain number of units each term? Is the grant or scholarship dependent on your major? What happens if, through no fault of your own, you are unable to graduate in four years? As they say, “The devil is in the details”. Unfortunately, few award letters provide these details, so you’d be wise to inquire before making decisions.
Furthermore, award letters typically include “self help” (loans and work study) figures. While these sources of aid are undoubtedly helpful, keep in mind that they are not gift aid. Loans must be paid back. Some award letters include only direct student loan amounts (both subsidized and unsubsidized), while others add PLUS loan amounts. While both of these are loan programs, they carry very different terms concerning eligibility, interest rates, lending amounts and other significant details.
Work study figures are simply maximum allowances, not gifts. The amount of money allotted must be earned. If you don’t secure a work study job or don’t work the maximum hours offered, you won’t have that amount of money to use.
What to Look For
The best way to compare financial aid offers is by creating your own spreadsheet.
Begin with the total Cost of Attendance including both direct and indirect costs. You’ll probably need to estimate at least part of this including transportation and personal expenses. Then deduct the total of your grant and scholarship awards. This result is the actual cost for your first year. Now deduct any work study you’ve been awarded. This figure is the amount you’ll have to either pay or finance.
Compare this figure across all the schools you’re considering. This is arguably the most crucial figure to wrap your head around. Although your award will include loans, remember, eventually these must be repaid.
Now it’s time to consider how much of your award is in the form of loans, and what type of loans are offered. Because student loans and parent loans are two very different things, and it is critical to understand view them as separate line items.
Direct student loans may be subsidized or unsubsidized. The only difference is that for subsidized loans, the federal government pays the interest while you’re attending college. Unsubsidized student loans accrue interest as soon as funds are disbursed, though you aren’t required to begin paying that interest until six months after you graduate.
PLUS Parent loans carry very different terms from student loans. Parents are the borrowers and must qualify for the loans. Interest rates for PLUS loans are higher than for student loans, and repayment and forgiveness terms are very different.
The Bottom Line
Once you deduct the loan amounts you’ve been offered, you’re left with the amount of money you’ll actually have to come up for the first year. How does this compare with the “Expected Family Contribution” figure from your “Student Aid Report”? If the total amount of aid offered is less than your Expected Family Contribution, you’ve been “gapped”. If you’ve been “gapped” you’ll need to come up with this as well as your Expected Family Contribution.
Consider how much you can actually afford out-of-pocket and how much you’re comfortable financing. We’ve all heard horror stories about students graduating with $100,000 in debt, seriously compromising their plans for the future. This happens when families become so enamored with an institution that they believe it is worth attending at all costs.
What is Reasonable Debt?
For most families, at least some debt at college graduation is a fact of life. But, how much student debt is reasonable? How much “skin in the game” should students have? What level of borrowing is manageable without stifling plans for graduate school or buying a house?
Although there is no one right answer for all situations, there are a couple of rules of thumb. One school of thought is that borrowing should not exceed the limit imposed by the Department of Education’s student loan program which is currently $31,000.
Other schools of thought consider post graduation earnings, meaning that engineering students might afford to borrow more that someone preparing for a career in early childhood education. Mark Kantrowitz, a college financing expert and frequent contributor to Money magazine’s online column, says that your total college debt should not exceed your total annual income after graduation. Other experts suggest that monthly student loan payments shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of your pretax, post-graduation income.
The time for figuring out how much debt is reasonable for you is now, not when your loans go into repayment.
Deciding between schools with varying costs can be confusing. Although it is possible to objectively compare college costs, balancing costs with value is a subjective endeavor. Determining whether attending College A is “worth” more than attending College B is very personal.
Although where you attend college can have a huge influence on your future, what you do during college will have even more impact. During this time of final decision-making, take time to compare costs and consider value.
Whatever school you decide to attend should meet your education and personal needs without either crippling your future or jeopardizing your parents’ home or retirement. Taking on a reasonable amount of debt is a wise investment in your future. Taking on too much debt is likely to cause regret.