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Understanding College Financial Offers


Understanding College Financial Offers

Tips for Comparing Financial Aid Packages


After months of searching, filing applications for admission, financial aid and scholarships and waiting for responses, the time has come for college-bound students to see what financial aid colleges will offer and to make some decisions on where to go. As mail and e-mails arrive, students will eagerly open it up and … blink in confusion.


Financial offers come in many different formats, and financial aid packages are made up of different types of aid that don’t necessarily match up from school to school. Students and parents often have a hard time determining which school is offering the best financial aid package for them.


Experts at the Iowa College Access Network® (ICAN) regularly help students straighten out the confusion without recommending any particular school, said Erick Danielson, Vice President of Programs. “If you need help, please call or stop in at one of our centers,” Danielson said. “We can help you compare different packages so you’re making an informed decision.”


In addition, ICAN offers this information about financial aid offers.


How Packages Are Created

Each school you apply to considers several factors when creating your financial aid package.



  • Submitted financial information. The information you provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) creates an overall picture of your and your family’s ability to pay for your education. This is known as the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and depends on income, savings, number of family members in or soon to attend college, and other factors.


  • Outside aid. If you’ve been awarded scholarships or grants from organizations outside the school and government, those will likely reduce the amount of aid offered.


  • Available funding. Every school and the federal government have a limited amount of money to hand out to students. Depending on availability of funds and qualifications for grants, scholarships and federal student loans, you may qualify for different types and amounts of aid at different schools.


  • Your interests and abilities. Your field of interest, the major you declare, and your participation in athletics, arts and other activities may qualify you for more scholarships specific to those areas. The availability and amount will vary from school to school.


  • Types of Aid. With all the variables, it’s important that you pay close attention to the types of aid offered rather than just the bottom line.


  • Gift aid. Scholarships and grants do not need to be paid back, so these carry more weight than other types of aid. Generally, the more in gift aid a school offers, the better the financial aid package, but check to see if the awards are for only a year, if opportunities are available for future years, what you need to do to requalify for or keep the awards, and what percentage of the total cost they make up.


  • Work-study. A work-study position provides some benefits over other part-time jobs; it may be closely aligned to your declared major and offer more scheduling flexibility, for example. This is a type of self-help aid, but because the money you earn is yours to spend on college costs without repayment, it’s better than loans.


  • Federal student loans. Federal student loans, another type of self-help aid, often offer better rates and terms than private student loans, so they’re definitely worth considering. Be sure you understand the repayment requirements and think seriously about whether you’ll be able to make payments with your anticipated starting salary after school. Different types of federal student loans also offer different terms, so weigh the pros and cons of each type when comparing.


  • Comparing Aid and Packages. Now that you know about the different types of aid, consider how each financial aid package affects the overall cost of attending that school, and then compare across schools.


  • Consider all costs. Some award letters provide only the direct costs of tuition and room and board, while others include estimated amounts for transportation, books and supplies, required fees, and other indirect costs. Make sure you plan for all expenses, whether they’re listed in the letter or not, as you weigh your options.


  • Compare gift aid to self-help aid. A higher percentage of gift aid (like scholarships) than self-help aid (like loans) probably means you’ll graduate with less debt to repay from that particular school. As you compare different schools, also think about what percentage of the overall cost is picked up by gift aid.


  • Keep timelines in mind. Your award letters likely show awards for the upcoming school year. Find out whether the awards are renewable for additional years, and think about how long you’ll need to attend that school. If you’ll have trouble getting into the classes you need for graduation at some schools, you may need to plan for more than four years at those institutions.


  • Know what the school offers. You may be willing to pay more or take on a little more debt to graduate from a particular school because of its reputation, its ability to help you find a job in your career choice or other reasons. On the other hand, a good financial aid package may open new possibilities at a school that was previously lower on your list.


What to Do Next

After you’ve considered the offered financial aid packages, take these steps.


  • Follow directions. Read each offer to see what you need to do to accept or decline the package. Even if you haven’t decided which school to attend, you may need to sign and return your offer to reserve the financial aid package in case you decide to attend.


  • Accept only what you need. An offer may only have “yes” or “no” checkboxes for a total loan amount, but you don’t need to accept the entire loan. Carefully read the Master Promissory Note (MPN) enclosed with the offer. You don’t want to take on more debt than necessary, so if you can get by with less loans, accept only the amount you think you’ll need.


  • Stay in contact with the schools. If you are awarded additional scholarships or take on an additional job, notify the schools you’re considering as soon as possible. Each school will need to reevaluate your need and its financial aid package. You should also notify the school if your situation has changed for the worse; if your parent lost a job, for example, you might qualify for more aid.


  • Ask questions. Contact the financial aid office if you have any questions about the deadlines, direct or indirect costs of attendance, changes in your situation, or how to accept only part of a package. Financial aid officers can provide more information and help make sure you follow the process so you receive as much aid as possible.


About ICAN

The Iowa College Access Network is a nonprofit, educational organization. ICAN is the College Access Network for Iowa, and a member of the National College Access Network (NCAN). ICAN has eight locations, in Iowa which provide information and support to students and their families as they plan their postsecondary education and apply for financial aid. Virtual appointments are also available via Zoom™. Most ICAN programs and services are provided without charge. For more information about ICAN, call (877) 272-4692 or visit


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