College financial award letters can sometimes be difficult to decipher. With the May 1 deadline for fall enrollment decisions fast approaching, families must be careful as they review details about the types of aid listed in these letters.
That number next to the word “financial aid award”? It’s not all a gift This is the single biggest point of confusion, financial aid experts say. There may be a line at the bottom of your letter that reads, “this is your award amount,” and the number next to that phrase could look like a lot of dollars. However, you have to look at the lines above the “total aid award” number to figure out what went into calculating that total – and chances are, there are some loans mixed in. Since loans need to be paid back with interest, these are hardly a “gift.”
This sample award letter shows a $39,000 “award” that “includes “$2,000 you’re expected to earn and another $6,500 you’ll have to pay back”.
What’s worse, Mark Kantrowitz says, you may not be able to quickly tell which items are grants and which are loans. “There’s no interest rate, no monthly payment listed, and they may not use the word loan. They set up a character limit for the name of the award and they use lots of abbreviations. Sometimes they’ll say L or LN instead of using the full word for loan,” he says. So, for instance, you may see “Fed Staff L,” and there may be a “sub” or “unsub” afterwards. This stands for “federal Stafford loan,” a loan that comes from the government and whose current interest rate is 3.9%. “Sub” stands for subsidized, which means the interest does not accrue while you’re in school; “unsub” stands for unsubsidized, which means the interest does accrue while you’re in school so the amount you owe upon graduation will be larger than the amount you borrowed (unless you pay down the interest while you’re in school).
Sometimes loans to parents are included in the award amount.
Stafford loans are loans that go in the student’s name, but parents need to be careful to scan the award letter for the addition of loans that will be in their names, too. Troy Onink, CEO of college planning service Stratagee.com (and a FORBES contributor), says that some schools will even include a Parent Plus loan into the “award” mix. Though this item is just a suggestion — you’re not required to take out a Parent Plus loan, whose interest rate was 6.41% this past academic year and whose 2014-2015 interest rate has not been set yet –some schools include a parental loan to inflate the “award” and make it look better than it is.
Forbes has additional tips for “Decoding College Financial Aid Award Letters“.