Once the letter/package from the institution it is of course important to review it. You will want to make sure that your information is accurate. As for the money listed you want to see how much aid, but also what kind. How much of the aid is a grant, a scholarship, work study and loan. For any merit aid you will want to want to understand the options and requirements to continue to receive it. For example, do you need to get and keep a certain GPA? If you have any questions on the letter, make a list and give the institution a call for clarification.
Next, you should compare the award letters from each college but an issue that you need to understand is that schools only provide one-year of information. Taking a four-year approach has several advantages such as allowing the family to evaluate the possible changes in their EFC projection. The EFC number could go up or down based on other siblings in the family or because the college may offer more aid in the first year but will be unable to offer as much the following years. Seeing the award letter projected out four-years will help families develop their budget and cash flow. If your first choice came in with less than you hoped in the right kind of aid (kind that you don't have to pay off) you don't have to stop there. You may now want to appeal the award letter.
During your appeal, make your case that their institution is your first choice and give a brief reason as to why (i.e. right culture, degree, reputation etc.) and when possible be able to provide additional numbers that they may not be aware of. If the parents are also providing some assistance to another family member (parent?), a lower income in the current year or some other factors they may be unaware of. Additionally, you can provide numbers from the award letters from other similar institutions.This is where your initial research and the filing of multiple applications could pay off. If there is a similar school within the same athletic conference, this could be an especially worthwhile step.
Sometimes, the award numbers from each school can be difficult to compare since each school has its own format. Review and compare the cost of attendance of each school versus the personal numbers. Separating the gift aid from the need based aid is important. While it may seem like a lot of work to sort through the different offers, remember that there is a lot of money involved in this process. Taking some extra time now, may save you some significant money in the future.
Please see below some of the terms for the financial aid that you may see on the award letter and a brief definition. The amount and terms can change so it is important to review the terms upon the receipt of the award letter.
The Federal Pell Grant - This is administered by the federal government. This is usually for lower income families and can be up to as much as $5,815 per year.
The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) - This is a federal grant that is administered by the colleges themselves. The schools get an annual lump sum and gives to the student at their discretion. These awards can be from $100- $4000.
School Grants - Grants from the institution itself. This doesn't come from the government so there are no rules about how they can be used. Some say they award money only based on need, others merit or some combination thereof. You could think of this as the means they offer as a discount to attract the students they want that year in their college.
State Grants - If your student is attending college in their own state of residence (or a state that has a reciprocal agreement with the state)these grants are given by the states themselves based on need and size of tuition. This means that a student may get a higher grant (up to $6,000) to attend a private college rather than a state university.
School Scholarships - Some schools word the award as a scholarship but base it more on need. Other schools can give scholarships the way we would normally think of them, like academic athletic or for artistic achievements and skill. As well, some schools give these as a combination of merit and need.
Federal Work Study - These are part time jobs normally on the campus the help meet the family's remaining need. While some have rejected these due to concerns that it will detract too much from their studies, generally students who work during college have historically had higher grade point averages than students who don't work.
Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) grant program - A federal grant program that provides grants of up to $4,000 per year to students who intend to teach full-time in a high need field. Schools must have chosen to participate in the program and meet certain requirements.
Federal Perkins Loan - Government subsidized loans at below market interest rates made to the student. No interest accrues during the college years and the students have ten years to pay. These loans are administered through the institutions based on their criteria of need. Loans can borrow up to $5,500 per year with a cap of $27,500. The amount that a school can loan out changes due to approval of Congress and can factor in the default rate of the school's former students.
Federal Stafford Loans - There are subsidized and unsubsidized loans and to get a subsidized one a student must be judged to have need by the college. If the loan is subsidized then no interest accrues while the student attends above half time in college. The unsubsidized loan is not based on need but will be charged interest from when the loan is taken out. A dependent student may be eligible to borrow up to $5,500 for the freshman year, $6,500 for the sophomore year and $7,500 for the junior and senior years.
College's own Loans - These can vary widely in attractiveness and should be examined very carefully before you accept them.