Before College: Shop Comparatively Using the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet

Many colleges have begun sending newly admitted undergraduates “award letters” showing the types and amounts of financial aid they can expect if they enroll in those schools. If your high school senior hasn’t already received such letters, they’ll probably start arriving in the next few weeks.

So dust off your calculator because, just as with any major purchase, the key to college affordability is comparative shopping.

Unfortunately, no two award letters are alike. Each uses its own unique layout and terminology. Few offer consumer information you need to know about institutions. This makes it difficult to compare schools based on affordability.

img_5222That’s why the U.S. Department of Education created the “financial aid shopping sheet.” Thousands of colleges send it with their award letters, making it easier to compare key numbers about them.

The shopping sheet’s left side shows each school’s cost of attendance — the college’s “sticker price” for the upcoming academic year.

Next comes the grants and scholarships your student is set to receive at that college for that academic year. These discount sticker price to determine the college’s “net price.”

Then comes other types of financial aid — work-study, loans — being offered to help your student pay the school’s net price.

The shopping sheet’s right side also has useful data. These include 6-year graduation rates at universities and 3-year graduation rates at community colleges. Such rates show how schools compare to similar institutions in getting undergraduates across the finish line.

The sheet also discloses the percentage of the school’s alumni repaying their federal student loans three years after beginning to do so — indicating how well the school prepares students for gainful employment.

Finally, you’ll see the median amount the college’s students borrow in federal loans, and their median monthly payments. This can give a rough sense of how much debt your student might be burdened with to attend that school.

Schools use shopping sheets on a voluntary basis, but beware of colleges that don’t provide them. Why are they trying to make it more difficult for you to compare them with other institutions? What don’t they want you to know about their aid offers or graduation and borrowing data?

You should select a college based on many factors, but the shopping sheet gives you useful, easy-to-compare affordability information for this all-important decision.

College Affordability Solutions conducts affordability analyses on institutions students are considering, whether or not those institutions provide shopping sheets. Call (512) 366-5354 or email collegeafford@gmail.com for more information.

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