Decoding Your Financial Aid Award Letter

Understanding your financial aid offer is a key step in figuring out how much attending college will cost you. But sometimes reading your financial aid award letter can feel a bit like deciphering a code. In this blog post, we’ll walk you through the basics—but know that you can always reach out to your school’s financial aid office for additional help.

What is a financial aid offer?

In short, your financial aid offer tells you how much financial aid you qualify for at a specific college. Every college presents their financial aid information differently, but each financial aid package should include information on your total cost of attendance, the gift aid that you qualify for (grants and scholarships), your work-study allowance, and the loans that are available to you. Many colleges send out financial aid packages in March or April, but Bethel University applicants can expect to receive their financial aid offer as early as December.

Common financial aid related terms

Financial aid packages often contain jargon. In other words, some of the terms they use can be confusing if you’re not familiar. Here’s some common financial aid vocabulary that will be helpful to know:

  • Cost of attendance: This is typically the overall “sticker price” of your education, which should include tuition, any activity fees, room, and board. Often textbooks, supplies, transportation, and personal expenses are not included in this estimate. The cost of attendance may feel like an intimidating number—but remember, it’s extremely rare that anyone pays the full sticker price!
  • Scholarships: You may be awarded gift aid in the form of scholarships. These are monetary awards that celebrate academic achievement, special talent, an act of service, or a variety of other things. This money does not need to be repaid.
  • Grants: This is another type of gift aid, and it’s typically awarded based on your level of financial need. There are federal grants, state grants, and institution-specific grants. Like scholarships, grants do not need to be repaid.
  • Loans: Your financial aid offer letter will outline your federal loan eligibility. You aren’t required to accept these loans, but they’re available if you’d like to use them, and many students do. Federal student loans will offer you better interest rates than private loans. There are two kinds of federal student loans:
    • Direct subsidized loan: These are designed for students who demonstrate financial need. These loans will accrue interest; however, the federal government pays the interest while you’re enrolled as a college student—so you won’t see interest added to your account until after graduation.
    • Direct unsubsidized loan: These loans are not based on financial need, and unlike subsidized loans, the federal government does not pay the interest while you’re enrolled. This means you’ll see interest start to accrue while you’re in school.
  • Work-study: When work-study is listed in your financial aid package, it means that you’re able to earn up to a certain amount of money through a work-study job. Often these jobs are on campus. You’ll be paid for your work throughout the semester, so it’s important to note that this money will not be available to you right away like scholarships, grants, and loans. It’s also important to note that only some campus jobs qualify for work-study, and the amount on your award letter is not guaranteed.

How much will college actually cost me?

Your financial aid offer letter might lay this out neatly, but in case it doesn’t, here’s how to figure it out. First, calculate your net price, which is the cost of attendance minus any gift aid (grants and scholarships). So, for example, if your cost of attendance is $50,000, and your gift aid totals $30,000, your net price will be $20,000. This is how much your education will cost per year.

Now that you know your net price, consider the role loans and work-study can play in helping you cover the cost. Visit this Bethel financial aid webpage to learn how to compare different loans and to view a chart that estimates monthly payments based on borrowed amounts.

Things to remember

  • Different colleges break down price differently. When reading your financial aid offer, be sure you understand whether they’ve laid out the cost by year or by semester. They should make this clear in the letter, but it can also be easy to miss.
  • There may be additional scholarships you can apply for. Ask your admissions counselor if there are any school-specific scholarships. Some of the additional scholarships available to Bethel students include a chemistry scholarship, a music scholarship, an arts and humanities scholarship, and a physics and engineering scholarship. You may also find additional scholarships online or in your community. See our blog post on finding college scholarships for a few tips.
  • Ultimately, how you navigate paying for college is up to you. Some students take out federal student loans but work a little extra to avoid taking out private loans. Other students take out federal and private loans and use their work-study job to cover personal expenses. Some students take out federal loans and then enroll in a payment plan, making payments throughout the semester to cover the rest of  their cost of attendance. There’s a variety of paths to choose from. Discuss it with a parent, guardian, or trusted adult—and if the questions you have happen to be about a Bethel financial aid package, don’t hesitate to reach out!

At Bethel, you’re always more than just a number. Our admissions team will walk beside you, from the moment you first reach out to the day you start your first class. Whether you have questions about visiting campus, the application process, how to pay for college, or something else—we’re here to help. Meet your admissions counselor today.