Award Letters

Once your student aid application is processed, administrators at the colleges that have accepted you will access the personal and financial data you provided on your FAFSA to determine your student aid eligibility and award amounts. After they determine your types and amounts of awards, each college will send you an award letter that details the cost of attendance, any student aid you are awarded, and the outstanding balance. It is very important that you keep this letter and submit it in order to receive your reimbursement.

When Will My Letter Arrive?

When you receive your award letter depends on what type of school you are applying to. For example, "traditional students" attending a two- or four-year college generally receive award letters in March or April before the fall semester. Proprietary colleges (such as online campuses or technical schools) send award letters shortly after a student is accepted for admission. If something about your financial status changes for the worse (e.g., if a spouse's job is eliminated), colleges are often open to reconsidering your award and issuing you a new award letter.

Understanding and Evaluating Your Letter

There is no standard format for awards letters, so they can sometimes be confusing. Make sure to consider each of the following items when evaluating your letter:

  • Cost of Attendance (COA): While most colleges include COA information in your letter, they can describe the costs differently to make your financial aid package appear more generous. In addition to tuition and fees, your COA should include room and board, books and supplies, transportation expenses, and/or other personal expenses. However, colleges often underestimate these additional expenses, especially because actual costs can vary based on your personal circumstances. For example, your major might require more expensive books or your transportation costs may be higher because you are an out-of-state student. Make sure to consider your cost of attendance figure carefully. If applicable, use your College Cost & Planning Report® as a reference.
  • Type of Aid: Your financial aid package can include a combination of grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study. Sometimes colleges use unfamiliar abbreviations to designate these types of aid, so it is unclear what type of aid you are actually receiving. If you have any doubt as to what type of aid you are being awarded, contact the financial aid office at the school to confirm.
  • Grants, Scholarships, & Work-Study: This type of aid is extremely desirable because you do not have to pay it back. It is important to be aware of all of the conditions and requirements you must meet to receive these funds, however, so that you don't jeopardize your eligibility. Also, some grants and scholarships are only awarded to first-year students. Ask your school if you can expect to receive similar awards in following years or if these are one-time awards. This will help give you a more accurate long-term picture of your financial aid package.
  • Types and Terms of Loans: Award letters don't always clearly detail the terms of your awarded loans. It is important to know the associated interest rates, whether the loan has subsidized or unsubsidized interest, the repayment terms (including how many years you have to repay the loan and whether or not you have to begin repayment while in school), and any additional fees before you accept a loan. It is also important to determine if a loan is a federal or private loan, as award letters can be unclear. Private loans usually have higher interest rates and less favorable repayment terms, so federal loans should always be exhausted first.

When comparing the financial aid packages from different schools, you should also recognize that some schools will include unsubsidized Direct loans and PLUS loans while others will not. This is because these loans are not "need-based" loans awarded to only those that qualify, but rather are loans for which most are eligible and that are used to help families pay for their expected contribution.