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College Bound? Six Questions To Ask As You Consider Financial Aid

Every Spring, millions of college-bound students across the country start ripping open financial aid package letters from the colleges and universities that they’re considered.

For many, the details in those packets will help them make one of the biggest decisions of their lives so far: Exactly where they will spend the next two to four years. And, with student loan debt totaling $1.2 trillion and counting, students and families are especially mindful of the total cost to go to college.

But, before you make a quick decision, it’s important to take a very close look at each of your offers.

Here are six questions to ask about your financial aid before you sign on the dotted line:

1. What’s the actual total cost to me? Maybe you received $40,000 from one school and just $10,000 from the other school. At first blush, the $40,000 offer might sound like the best one until you consider that it comes from an expensive private college in a big city across the country and the other offer comes from the much cheaper state school in the next town over.

Don’t jump at the biggest offer. Take a close look at the total cost to attend each of the institutions that you’re considering. Many colleges, but not all, will include a “shopping sheet” in their packages to make it easier to compare. Don’t forget costs such as travel back home during breaks in your equations.

2. How much will I have to pay? Packages typically include grants and expected family contributions and loans. Do the math to determine the total amount you or your family will need to pay while you’re in school and once you graduate.

3. What is your career path? Are you pre-med with plans on becoming a neurosurgeon? Or, is teaching kindergarten in your future? Your career path -- and future salary -- should play into your decision as you consider how much debt to take on. A neurosurgeon, making an average of $395,000 a year, will have an easier time paying off student debt than a kindergarten teacher, who makes about $52,000 on average.

4. What are the graduation and job placement rates at the schools I’m considering? Heading to college, your goals should be to graduate and find a job. It’s important to know if students at the schools you’re considering are meeting those objectives.

Nationally, about 60 percent of students attending four-year colleges graduate in six years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. How does the national average compare to the institutions you’re looking at? Once they do graduate, how many find a job? If you can’t find the information online, ask an admissions officer.

5. What’s the loan default rate at the schools I’m considering? There’s some good news on student loans. The number of people who can’t afford payments on student loans within three years of the due date has dropped for three straight years. A higher than average default rate could signal that students aren’t graduating or are having a tough time finding well-paying employment. You can find information about individual institutions on the online College Navigator, which is maintained by the National Center for Education Statistics.

6. Does the institution offer work flexibility? If you’ll need to work to support yourself during college, find out if the college or university has solutions for you. Are there night or weekend classes? Can you attend part-time? Are summer courses a possibility?

You’ve done the hard work, but it’s not time to put the pencil down yet. A thorough review of your financial aid offers will ensure you make the best decision for your family and for you.

Consumer Education Services, Inc. (CESI) is a non-profit committed to empowering and inspiring consumers nationwide to make wise financial decisions and live debt free. Speak with a certified counselor for a free debt analysis today!

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