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When Will the Financial Aid Award Letter Arrive?

Mark Kantrowitz

March 14, 2011

I am new to all of this and I am wondering how soon we find out how much financial aid we will be getting. My son has been accepted at 3 colleges and each one wants money to secure his place. One is way more expensive than the others but if we get enough aid he can go there. The deposit is non-refundable and I can’t afford to send $400 to a college if he can’t attend. They want the deposit by May 1st. Will I know by then? Thanks so much … this whole thing just terrifies me. — Teresa B.

Colleges use financial aid award letters to notify families about the types, amounts and sources of financial aid available to the student. This collection of financial aid is often referred to as a financial aid package.

You should receive the financial aid award letter soon, with enough time to review it before the May 1 deadline. (This assumes, of course, that you met the college’s deadlines to file its financial aid application forms and the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).)

May 1 is known as the national candidate’s reply date or the common reply date. It is the deadline for accepting offers of admission at most colleges.

Most colleges send out offers of admission in late March or early April. The financial aid award letter should arrive at the same time or a few days later.

Colleges that provide earlier admissions notifications often wait until a set date to mail the financial aid award letters. Even though colleges start putting together financial aid packages in mid-February, they often wait until the March/April timeframe to mail the financial aid award letters to reduce the uncertainty associated with some forms of financial aid. For example, some states might not finalize the state grants until later in the spring. It is also unclear whether Congress will be cutting the maximum Pell Grant this fall.

If more than two weeks have passed since you filed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and you have not yet received the Student Aid Report (SAR), check the status of your FAFSA on the www.fafsa.ed.gov web site. Applicants who submitted the FAFSA online should receive email about how to access the SAR in 3-5 days. If you did not include an email address on your FAFSA or you filed a paper FAFSA, you should receive your SAR by mail in 7-10 days.

After you receive the SAR, your FAFSA may be selected for verification. It is important to return the verification paperwork as soon as possible, or you risk delaying your financial aid award letter.

Some colleges have secure online portals they use to deliver the financial aid award letter instead of sending it by mail. Login to the portal to check whether there are any messages waiting for you. Login instructions may have been included with the admissions packet.

If you are worried, or if you have not received the financial aid award letter by mid-April, call the college’s financial aid office to ask when you should expect to receive the financial aid award letter. Some colleges will include this date in a financial aid timeline on the college’s web site.

After you receive the financial aid award letter, check whether you have to return a signed copy to the financial aid office. Some colleges require you to sign and return the letter within a week or two to accept the financial aid offer. Others do not.

Evaluate the financial aid award letters by calculating the out-of-pocket cost for each college. This is the difference between the full cost of attendance and the gift aid (e.g., grants, scholarships, tuition waivers and housing waivers). Be sure that the cost of attendance figure is complete and that the various allowances for textbooks and travel are reasonable. The out-of-pocket cost is the amount you will have to pay or borrow to send your child to the college. It is an accurate measure of your bottom line cost and a good basis for comparing college costs among different colleges.

Students who are wait-listed may have to wait until after the May 1 reply date to hear about offers of admission and financial aid.

You must reapply for financial aid every year. In subsequent years the financial aid award letter may come later because there is less pressure to make a decision by the admissions deadline.


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