Knowledge For College: Financial aid letters are confusing, but advisers can help

As a college adviser, it’s hard to forget that most of my students have never seen a financial aid letter. I have noticed, though, that it’s easier for me to forget what it feels like to see a financial aid letter for the first time. My first reaction to a financial aid offer letter as an adviser is to parse out which award amounts are gift aid and which are loans; I also keep separate running totals for indirect and direct costs. Students, understandably, don’t engage in these same habits when reviewing their financial aid letters.

This year, I have observed a couple of student reactions that seem more common than others. The first of these reactions is alarm: they have just received written correspondence from a university containing a confusing list of line-items with thousand-dollar sums and mentions of student and parent PLUS loans, and it catches them off guard. They don’t know if they’re on the hook for these thousands of dollars or if they must take out all the loans they’ve had offered to them. Of course, they will eventually find out that they must take a few more steps before they receive a loan or owe money to a university, but that does little to dull the initial shock that accompanies a financial aid award letter.

The second of these reactions is more passive: they have applied to and received an acceptance from a university, filed their FAFSA, and now they get to see how much it costs. Whatever is on the financial aid letter is what they’ll need to pay or borrow, no questions asked. They don’t stop to consider that they won’t necessarily need to pay an entire year’s worth of estimated indirect costs upfront – students see that their cost of attendance is higher than the amount of aid awarded, and they assume that they’ll need to take on additional student loans to cover the difference. In some cases, this might be true, but often it is the case that students can cover the costs of books and expenses in other ways with less debt.

These reactions seem common to me but are not ideal – and it still catches me off guard when students walk into my office with one of these attitudes toward their financial aid letters. After all the classroom presentations and FAFSA nights we’ve done, why are students still so mystified by financial aid letters?

The answer, I think, is simple. Financial aid award letters are confusing, and these students have never received one before. Even if a student has a theoretical understanding of financial aid, they have never actually dealt with their financial future in this way before. Once they see their name at the top of these letters with actual dollar amounts listed below, it can be hard to put theory into practice. This means that advisers should be particularly diligent about reviewing financial aid letters with students – even if a student thinks they have it covered, they still might need extra support.

Benjamin Wilkerson, CAC adviser at Indiana University Bloomington.

Author Benjamin Wilkerson is College Advising Corps Adviser at Indiana University Bloomington. Having served almost two years as an adviser, Ben plans to pursue a master’s degree in the fall of 2022.

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