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10 things to consider in comparing financial aid

College financial aid award letters start to arrive in student mailboxes in mid-February. Here are some tips on understanding and comparing financial aid awards.

1. Compare "apples to apples" when looking at financial aid packages.

Families often compare specific elements within the package (merit scholarship amount, work study allocation, etc.), rather than the bottom line. Students who may be uncertain about whether or not they are making a good comparison should call their admissions counselor or the Office of Financial Assistance to find out.

2. Don't forget about expenses beyond tuition, fees, housing and meals.

These include transportation, books, lesson or lab fees, and laundry and pizza money. Students usually can get an estimate of personal expenses from the Office of Financial Assistance. Expenses beyond tuition, fees, housing and meals often are overlooked by families.

3. Look carefully to see if a parent loan (PLUS) is included.

Some colleges include a parent loan (PLUS) in the award letter. When this is done, the identified "out-of-pocket cost" can be $0 or very low. It is true that qualified borrowers may get a loan for expenses up to the cost of attendance, but there are occasions when a family does not qualify for PLUS.

4. Take note of the criteria to keep a scholarship or other financial assistance.

A student who receives a merit-based scholarship should make sure to understand what it takes to maintain the award in future years (GPA, service, work or research requirements). These awards typically are not guaranteed if the student doesn't meet the criteria to renew the award.

5. Ask questions about the quality of residential life, not housing.

How many students live on campus and stay on campus over the weekends? Make sure to understand what type of room is included in the cost estimate. Living in a particular residence hall may cost more than the out-of-pocket expense calculated in the aid package.

6. Call the Office of Financial Aid with any questions.

No question is too small and calls are welcome. In fact, calls often are preferred to make sure everything is clear about the financial aid process or the award letter. (Contact Augustana at 309-794-7207.)

7. Think in terms of worth, first, and bottom-line cost next.

There is no question that the cost of attendance is a major consideration. Sometimes a college simply will be unaffordable for a family. However, a college education is an investment in a life well-lived and a life that equips a graduate to make a living. Not all colleges and college experiences are comparable. Consider what experiences and outcomes are most meaningful and what they are worth during and after college. The same degree from one college may be worth far more if earned at another college.

8. Don't commit without all of the facts.

Students should make sure to understand the implications of their decision. Sometimes there is extraordinary pressure from parents and peers for a student to make a decision. Commit only after thorough evaluation. Nearly all colleges will give students until May 1 to make a final decision.

9. Don't pay for advice about financial assistance.

Some organizations will charge for advice about how to navigate the financial aid process. Students should simply call the experts in the admissions or financial assistance at the colleges.

10. Keep the "pay-off" in mind.

A college education is not just about four years on campus, but what awaits a student upon graduation. It's an investment in the future — career, health, family and well-being. Compare experiences and results rather than dollars and cents.