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Today is the first day of spring! Flowers are blooming, birds are singing, and financial aid award letters are showing up in the mailboxes (and email inboxes) of college-going seniors. When you get that award letter, it’s easy to jump right to the line that tells you exactly how much aid you are receiving. But don’t be fooled. All financial aid is not equal.

The most important thing to keep in mind is the bottom line: The amount you owe will depend on the cost of attendance (COA) minus the aid you are offered. If College A offers you $2,500 in aid, while University B provides $4,000, College A is still the better deal if its total COA is $1,501 less than University B.

Also be sure you know exactly what types of aid are being offered. Is it a grant (which doesn’t have to be repaid), a work-study offer (which requires time spent at a job), or a loan (which will have to be repaid), or a combination? You should also be on the lookout for aid requirements, such as maintaining a certain GPA or studying a particular subject.

Still confused? Don’t worry, you aren’t alone. Ask your school counselor for help or call the college for clarification. You can also find online articles about how to compare financial aid offers, such as this one from US News & World Report.

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Having a tough time comparing your financial aid award notifications to figure out which institution is offering you the best package? Check out Peter Van Buskirk’s hints in his column from US News & World Report.

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