Step #1: Gather the data

Gather all your financial aid offer letters. If you’re having trouble determining net costs, contact the school’s financial aid office for help. Most financial aid offices have general estimates.

Breakdown of General Information

  • Direct Costs: What the college or university will bill you including tuition, housing, food, and required fees. Sometimes also referred to as the comprehensive fee.
  • Indirect Costs: Necessary expenses related to attendance. Think of books, supplies, transportation, personal expenses, and optional fees.
  • Grants/Scholarships: Gift aid, or money that you do not need to repay or earn through work. Grants and scholarships do not have to be paid back. For instance: Pell Grant, State Grants, institution grants and scholarships, merit scholarships, etc.
  • Student Loans: Money that is borrowed and will need to be repaid, with interest.
  • Work/Student Employment: Earnings you will make while working. Note how many hours per week you will need to work to earn the full amount.

Most financial aid offices are open to reconsidering financial aid awards if the student and/or their family can produce documentation for why this is necessary. This is not an end-all solution to making college more affordable but it can provide another option for students and their families struggling to make college a possibility.

Questions to Consider About Personal Expenses

  • Will I need additional clothes if moving to a new climate?
  • How many times will I come home from college? Transportation?
  • Does the college meal plan provide meals every day?
  • Do I need a new computer or mobile phone plan?
  • How much can we afford each month for personal spending?

Step #2: Calculate the balance

Determine total costs for the school year with this formula:

Direct Costs – Gift Aid = what the institution will bill you.

Questions to Consider

  • Is this affordable and realistic?
    • If not, how much of it can you pay?
  • How much in student loans are you willing to take to cover the remaining balance?
  • Do you have a credit (or negative) balance that can be used for indirect expenses?
  • After students and families cover the total balance for the institution, how will indirect expenses be paid for?
    • Will parents/guardians help pay for these?
    • Will you need to take more loans?
    • Can work earnings cover these?

Step #3: Compare

Create a chart or download this sample worksheet (Excel file) to compare each of the following for each college or university you are considering. This will contribute to the final decision about where to enroll by comparing the costs of multiple schools where you have been accepted. 

Make sure you’re comparing “apples-to-apples.” Too often people look at just the total awarded and compare those figures. Since not all types of financial aid are the same, be careful to make good comparisons. 

Here are some of the items to keep in mind:

  • Direct Costs
  • Indirect Costs
  • Scholarships/Grants
  • What you will owe the school
  • Loans you may need to take out
  • Hours you may need to work while taking classes
  • Additional fees not covered by direct cost