You Got In! Now What? Deciphering Financial Aid & Comparing Colleges

student deciding on a college

College Decision Success: Beyond the Acceptance Letter

Yes! You’ve been accepted to college – maybe even a few! It’s time to compare colleges to make your decision. While the excitement is real, now comes the tough part: Deciding where to actually enroll and how to navigate the world of financial aid. Let’s break down this process to make choosing the right college a less stressful and more empowering experience.

Decoding Financial Aid Offers

Those financial aid packages might seem as confusing as ancient hieroglyphics. Here’s what to understand:

Types of Aid:

  • Grants/Scholarships: This is free money you don’t repay!
  • Federal Loans: Borrowed money you repay (some are subsidized, meaning the government covers interest while you’re in school).
  • Work-Study: Part-time jobs on campus to earn money.

Direct vs. Indirect Costs:

  • Direct costs: The stuff on your bill (tuition, fees, maybe housing/meal plans)
  • Indirect costs: Essential but not billed (books, supplies, transportation, living expenses).

Net Cost Calculator:  Found on college websites, these tools help estimate your personalized cost of attendance after financial aid is applied.

Step-by-Step Comparison

  1. Create a Spreadsheet: List each college, tuition, room and board, and your financial aid offer broken down by type (grants, loans, etc.). Here is a great spreadsheet from Oregon Goes to College to get started.
  2. Estimate Indirect Costs: Research average book prices, transportation needs, etc., for each college location. Add these to your spreadsheet.
  3. Calculate True Cost: Subtract your aid package from the total cost of attendance for each college. This shows how much you’ll likely pay out-of-pocket each year. Are your scholarships and grants guaranteed each year?
  4. Repayment Reality: If your package includes loans, use a loan calculator (like the one on to see future monthly payments. Can you realistically afford those?

Things Money Can’t Buy –  Factors Beyond the Numbers

  • “Fit” Factor: Visit campuses if possible. Where do you picture yourself thriving? Does the college feel supportive and offer your desired major?
  • Location Matters: Big city vs. college town, close to home or far away – what’s your ideal environment for these next years?
  • Special Programs: Honors programs, study abroad, top-notch facilities for your major – these can make the higher price tag worth it.
  • Gut Feeling: Don’t overthink it. Sometimes, one college just feels right. Trust your intuition!

When the Financial Aid Isn’t Enough

  • Negotiate: It never hurts to respectfully ask the financial aid office for reconsideration, especially if you have a better offer from a competing college.
  • More Scholarships: Keep searching and applying! Local scholarships often have less competition. Sites like Fastweb and are helpful.
  • Alternative Plans: Consider starting at a cheaper community college and transferring later, or a gap year to work and save money.

Additional Tips for Success

  • Talk to Your Parents: Be open about what’s affordable for your family. This is a team decision, not just yours alone.
  • Financial Aid Experts: Your high school counselor or a financial aid advisor can offer personalized guidance.
  • Deadline Alert: Pay close attention to deadlines for accepting offers, making deposits, and submitting final paperwork.


Choosing a college is both exciting and overwhelming. Following these steps can help you compare colleges. Remember, there’s no single “right” answer.  Focus on finding the school that offers the best combination of academic fit, financial feasibility, and the opportunity to flourish personally. You’ve got this! You can feel empowered to make a confident decision about your future!