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Congratulations on early acceptances. You should be proud. Having said that, every senior should proceed with caution.

Even though this is not my first college rodeo, I am still learning a lot about the process as a parent and a professional.

My son, a high school senior, has received eleven college acceptances over the last two months — all with different financial award letter amounts. This is the time when parents and students are in the driver’s seat. So, understanding your choices is imperative.

When reviewing financial aid awards, the first thing you should do is compare all offers and review your college list in terms of net cost.


Here is my son’s award letter from Stetson University.

Let’s use this as an example because the school did a very good job of demystifying all the financials in order for me to know how much I will be writing a check for next year.

Let’s review all the definitions as well as the financials:

1. DIRECT BILLABLE COST OF ATTENDANCE: The cost of attendance for one year is a key starting point when comparing financial aid packages. Direct costs are bills you pay directly to the school such as tuition, fees, and room and board.

The Direct Billable Costs to attend Stetson: $61,826

2. FREE MONEY: How much free money a student will receive is also a crucial figure. The key words to look for on your financial aid letter are the terms “grant” or “scholarship,” since these signify the amount of money that doesn’t need to be paid back.

Stetson Faculty Scholarship: $31,000

IMPORTANT: Make sure to check out whether the grants and scholarships the school offers will be renewed after the first year, which may require a call to the financial aid office. The school may have requirements, such as maintaining a certain grade point average.


A Stafford Loan is a student loan offered to eligible students enrolled in accredited American institutions of higher education to help finance their education. Subsidized loans do not incur interest until six months after the student has graduated from college. Unsubsidized loans incur interest while the student is in school, but they are still considered the most affordable loans.

Federal Direct Subsidized Loan = $3,500
Federal Direct Unsubsidized = $2,000

4. INDIRECT COSTS: Indirect costs are estimates based on the typical student and include costs such as books and transportation.

Indirect costs to attend Stetson: $4,300

5. NET COST: The net cost is the cost to attend minus any financial and scholarship aid – but this number will not necessarily be on the letter, so you may need to calculate it on your own. Students will pay for the net cost through a combination of loans, work study, and cash or savings.

Net Cost to Attend Stetson: $61,826 (Direct Cost) + $4,300 (InDirect Cost) = $66,126

Total (Sticker) Cost = $66,126 MINUS Financial Aid (Scholarship ($31,000) and Stafford Loan ($5,500) = Net Cost = $29,626.

A couple of important points to note: The Stafford Loan borrowing amount increases every year by approximately $1,000. ALSO: I did not include the unsubsidized loan interest rate in this calculation. AND, Connor is eligible for an additional scholarship to Stetson for which he must write an essay. And, he is applying to the Business Honors programs, so our Net Cost to attend Stetson may decrease. NEVER HESITATE TO ASK YOUR ADMISSIONS OFFICER ABOUT WHAT ADDITIONAL MONIES/OPPORTUNITIES MIGHT BE AVAILABLE.

6. GAPS OR UNMET NEED: Unmet need is anything you will owe after you’ve received all your grants and loans. This is also something that may not be on the financial aid award letter.

This can be covered by a payment plan at the institution, or if the student is a dependent student, a PARENT PLUS LOAN might help to fill that gap. REGARDLESS, if there’s a gap there; you’ll want to pay attention to what your options are for loans.

PARENT PLUS LOANS: Take care to check whether the school is including federal direct Parent PLUS loans – where the parent is the borrower – on the financial aid letter. Parent Plus Loans tend to be more affordable than regular bank loans.

● If an institution does not give a scholarship – ask why (maybe the admissions officer will resubmit for reconsideration). I was able to make this happen for one of Connor’s schools!

● Know every single scholarship available and apply for all of them (even if they seem out of your league). We applied for a scholarship to Miami Ohio not expecting anything and received $18,000/year.

BOTTOM LINE: The four years goes by quickly, but the student debt does not go away. I can’t stress enough to consider all offers and have your teen consider all schools he or she has received acceptances from to determine which school is the best fit academically, socially, and financially.

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