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Is Bigger Better? Sallie Mae Helps Families Evaluate Financial Aid Offers

Understanding What’s in a Financial Aid Offer is Critical to Making an Informed Decision About Paying for College

“Starting with a strong foundation of financial know-how will empower students and families to take on what’s next with confidence.”

After being admitted, students and families begin receiving financial aid offers, also referred to as financial aid award letters. Financial aid offers vary from school to school, and different formats and terminology can leave students questioning which offer is best for them. In fact, Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays for College 2019” shows that just 42 percent of families say they completely understand their financial aid offers.

Financial aid offers are sent by each school’s financial aid office to current and prospective college students who filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The offers illustrate the amount of financial aid that the student will be eligible to receive in the upcoming academic year. The timing of financial aid offers will depend on when the FAFSA was filed, and when schools send out acceptance letters.

To help families evaluate their options, Sallie Mae® is providing tips and resources for reviewing and comparing financial aid offers:

Create a spreadsheet and get organized. To help choose the best offer, create a spreadsheet so you can compare and keep track of a school’s cost of attendance (COA), the Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and the details of the financial aid offer, including any scholarships, grants, work-study, or federal student loans.

Understand the terminology. Recent research shows financial aid offers lack consistency in format and overall transparency, which could make it difficult for families to compare them. For example, you might see federal loans listed as a “federal direct unsubsidized loan,” “federal loan,” a “direct loan,” “direct unsub,” or even just “L.” Take the time to understand exactly what is being offered, and if you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact the school’s financial aid office.

Bigger isn’t always better. The biggest financial aid offer may not be the best. The key to success is to dive deeper and look beyond the total dollar amount. Establish how much of what’s listed is “free money,” like scholarships and grants, and how much is money that needs to paid back, like federal student loans. In some circumstances, it may make sense to accept a smaller financial aid offer that offers more scholarships and grants, over a larger award containing more loans.

It’s okay to negotiate. If your family’s financial situation has changed, pick up the phone and call your school’s financial aid office. They may be able to consider a reevaluation of your financial aid offer.

You don’t need to accept the entire offer. You are not required to accept everything that’s included within your financial aid offer. After you’ve established your plan to pay for college, only accept the types and amounts of aid you need, and make sure to respond to your school before the deadline.

Read the fine print. Even after you’ve accepted your financial aid offer, it’s important to pay attention to the fine print. Note which parts of the award are renewable and which are for just one year, and be mindful of grade point average requirements. Additionally, make sure you complete and submit any required documents promptly. Missing a deadline could negatively affect aid eligibility.

“College is often one of the first investments young adults make in themselves, and choosing the right financial aid offer is an important part of that journey,” said Martha Holler, senior vice president, Sallie Mae. “Starting with a strong foundation of financial know-how will empower students and families to take on what’s next with confidence.”

Tips on understanding and evaluating financial aid offers are available at

Learn more about SallieMae that you probably didn’t know:

Our Customers

• 91 percent of customers graduate/complete their program

• 98 percent of customers are successfully repaying their loans; less than 2 percent default annually

• 2 million customers since 2014

Our Scholarship Search

• Free online scholarship database with 5 million scholarships worth > $24 billion

• Last year, more than 20,000 students reported receiving at least one scholarship via our database, covering more than $61 million in college costs

• Since the scholarship search tool launched in 2007, more than 191,500 students have collectively won more than $563 M.


• Awarded $865,000 in Bridging the Dream scholarships to undergraduate and graduate students over the last four years

• See stories of two Pennsylvania students who received a $25,000 scholarship;

• Partnered with former middle-school teacher turned hip-hop artist, Dee-1, to educate more than 15,000 high school students on financial literacy

• Contributed more than $3 million through our charitable foundation, The Sallie Mae Fund, to support college access

Our Undergraduate Loans

• No origination fees or prepayment penalties

• Give students free 24/7 access to study tools and tutors

• 100 percent U.S. based customer service

• Help families reduce costs and graduate with less debt by introducing in-school payment options; 55 percent choose to make payments while in school

• After graduation, provide greater budget flexibility with option to make interest-only payments before transitioning into full principal and interest payments

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