Roadmap to College: Comparing Your Financial Aid Award Letters

Apr 12, 2021 1:32:04 PM

Springtime is a busy season for anyone attending college next fall. In March and April, prospective students usually hear back from the schools they’ve applied to and learn two key pieces of information: if they’ve been admitted to the school, and what kind of financial aid they can expect to receive.

The financial award letter from a school – which may arrive in your email or your mailbox – contains important information about what type of financial aid you are eligible for. There are three basic types of financial aid:

  • Grants & Scholarships: In effect, this is free money that you don’t need to pay back. Any merit, athletic or talent based grant you’ve received will be listed on your financial award letter.
  • Federal Work-Study (FWS): Qualifying for Federal Work-Study enables you to access part-time employment while enrolled in school, for a set number of hours per month. The school will pay you just like a normal job; then, you can use the funds for room and board, tuition, books, food and so on.
  • Student Loans: On your award letter, you’ll be able to see what Federal Student Loan options are available. These allow you to borrow money at a lower interest rate to pay for your post-secondary education and related expenses. Eventually you’ll need to pay back the money you’ve borrowed as well as whatever interest has accrued.

    Get more information about grants, loans and other forms of financial aid here:

Comparing Award Letters

When evaluating and comparing your financial aid offers from schools, it’s important to consider not only the total amount of the award, but also the specific type of aid that each school is offering.

A $15,000 award letter made up of $10,000 in grants and $5,000 in loans is very different than an award letter comprised of $5,000 in grants, $5,000 in loans, and $5,000 in work study. Loans still need to be paid off in the future, so while they are a key means to support your educational goals, they don’t reduce your true cost of attending school.

It’s also a good idea to compare each award letter against the cost of the institution. If a school offers you a substantive aid package but the price of tuition is on the higher end, it could make more financial sense to accept a smaller aid award at a less expensive college. Check out the chart below for an example of an award letter comparison:

  College A College B College C
Billed Costs $50,000  $35,000  $20,000


Student Loans











Total Aid (from award letter) -$25,000 -$22,000 -$17,000
Tuition Bill $26,500 $14,500 $4,500
True Cost (add loans) $32,000 $20,000 $10,000
Estimated Cost (for 4 years) $128,000 $80,000 $40,000

Thinking Beyond the Financials

Of course, no school decision should be made solely on cost. There’s also the overall college experience to consider. Does the school offer world-class faculty in a field you're passionate about? Will you be studying in an environment where you can build connections that will support your professional life further down the road? How about internship opportunities and extra-curriculars? All these factors should also play a role in your college decision.

If there’s a school you love that didn’t offer much financial aid, consider other ways of reducing costs. You can ask the university about cheaper room and board options, student health insurance, and sibling discounts. Depending on the location of the school, you might be able to find part-time work off campus. And, even if you didn’t qualify for a federal student loan, you can still apply for a private loan.

Other Award Letter Tips

Aside from key details about what financial aid you’re eligible to receive, the financial award letter will also include contact information, student enrollment status, academic year of the award, the student’s residential status, and so on. Make sure to read everything on your financial award letter! If any of this information is inaccurate, it could impact the award.

If you were expecting to receive a financial award letter and didn’t, there could be a few reasons why. Maybe you missed the deadline to apply: most financial aid applications are submitted in the fall of the previous year or by February at the latest. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) opens October 1 every year; you will need to reapply for financial aid annually.

Free College Financing Workshops

Curious to learn more? Join a series of free College Financing Workshops presented by HUECU, in partnership with Harvard University’s Work/Life Office! Topics covered include comparing financial award letters, applying for financial aid, student loan repayment and more. Head to to learn more and sign up!

Want to learn more?

Watch this webinar on Comparing Award Letters that HUECU presented for the Mass General Brigham Employee Assistance Program: 

Tags: Student Finances