Is my college offering me a good financial aid package?

Question: How can I know if a college is offering me a good financial aid package?

Along with those welcome letters of college acceptance come the financial aid packages. Some can be impressive; others are disappointing.

In previous columns here, we've talked about the term "meeting your full demonstrated need." That means a college or university comes up with a financial aid package that supplies you with the full difference between your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and the full student budget for the current school year.

The EFC is calculated by the College Scholarship Service (CSS) in Princeton, New Jersey. Every family with an aspiring college student is required to fill out a form called the CSS Profile. The Profile provides details of the family's financial resources. The form's information is processed by the CSS and an EFC is generated and reported to all the schools to which the student is applying. The financial aid offices of those schools then undertake to prepare a package of scholarships, loans, and jobs that covers most--if not all--of your demonstrated need.

When you receive your package, take note of what percentage is loans versus the percentage of grants and scholarships. Grants and scholarships don't have to be repaid; loans do. A general rule of thumb is that the higher-priced, selective, liberal-arts colleges and universities tend to give a higher percentage of scholarships and grants. Public institutions general supply less financial aid because they are being supported, in part by tax dollars and are subject to state funding ups and (mostly) downs.

If you have been accepted by both a public university and a private college or university, check the bottom line carefully. It is entirely possible that you may be able to go to a private school costing twice as much (or more) for about the same, or even less, money. It sounds illogical, but it happens every year. That's the difference among financial aid packages.

Most importantly, don't be afraid to call the respective financial aid offices at the schools to which you've been admitted. They'll be happy to explain what their packages mean.