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Understanding College

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It's that time of year when prospective college students all over the country are getting acceptance letters and financial aid packages. If you or a member of your family is part of this group, steel yourself. Confusion is the most common reaction to these packages. What's more, you may be disappointed. That's okay, it's also that time of year when you can ask college administrators to step up the grant money.

But first, understand the package itself. The big headline is whether your son or daughter (or yourself) has been accepted. Congratulations if the answer is yes. Step No. 2 is to understand just how much this is going to cost. It's not simple, given the way most of the award letters are written. A third of the award letters don't include the full cost of sending Junior to school. Yes, it will include tuition and some fees, but other major costs, like books, transportation and living expenses are omitted, says Mark Kantrowitz, in his hew took, "Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid."

Watch out, too, for whether the money the college is willing to give you is a grant, which does not have to be paid back, or a loan, which clearly does have to be paid back. You'd think it would be easy to discern this from the letter, but unfortunately it is not. Loans are often not labeled as loans. So you'll need to check with the school to make sure you understand which money is free and which has to be paid back.

When comparing offers, you'll need to understand what the net costs to you will be. Beware: The letters include a net cost figure, but these often include loans. So, do the math on your own. Calculate a true cost of attendance and subtract grants, scholarships and gift aid – money you will not have to pay back. Then compare these figures across institutions.

The good news is that it pays to ask for more – more free aid. Thirty to 50 percent of the families who ask for additional money from private colleges and universities get it. Many Ivy League schools will match need based offers from other schools. Or if your financial situation is changed through job loss, for example, you may be able to get more money. The key, here, is that it doesn't hurt to ask. Insiders, however, say you're best off not describing the conversation as a "negotiation."

Bottom line, get the details before accepting the offer. Be sure you understand just how much money you and your family will be on the hook for, and what free money or grant aid you will get.

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