Tips for Decoding College Financial Aid Offers

Elie Kapengut, 18, a freshman at Rutgers University, said his first aid letter from the school had included student loans. He didn’t want to borrow, though, so he didn’t take the required steps to accept the loans. A revised aid letter showed that the loans had been removed, he said.

But a later statement included an apparent credit for more than $2,700, mysteriously labeled “FINAID DUNSB OFFERED,” Mr. Kapengut said. It was listed alongside other credits from scholarships, and the balance on the bill was calculated as if the funds had been applied.

The money turned out to be a loan, Mr. Kapengut said, so he visited the school’s financial aid office and had it removed. It didn’t end up costing him more than a bit of a “hassle,” he said — but it did seem that some students might end up borrowing money unwittingly.

Rutgers said in an emailed statement that its student aid award letters follow the federal Education Department’s recommended template. All students who file the FAFSA, the federal application for student aid, receive the same electronic award letter, which includes a section for loans. The loans section displays the amount borrowed and provides an option for the student to decline the loan.

“If a student does not complete the form to decline the loan from the award letter, the loan will appear on the student’s term bill,” Rutgers said.

To compare aid offers, student advocates recommend that you first determine the total cost of attending each college, including “direct” costs like tuition, fees, on-campus housing and meal plans, and “indirect” costs like books, supplies, transportation and other expenses. If your aid letter doesn’t include a breakdown of these costs, call the financial aid office, visit the college’s website or try tools on the Education Department’s College Navigator.

Next, subtract any “gift aid,” which includes grants — including federal need-based Pell grants — and scholarships.

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