So, you've applied and been accepted to the colleges you'd like to attend. You've submitted your FAFSA and your financial aid offers are starting to roll in. You've arrived at the verge of making a fundamental choice that will shape the course of your life.

At this pivotal moment, you deserve the chance to pause before making that decision. Now that you're here, what's the best way to use all this information to help choose the cornerstone on which you'll build your future?

What you shouldn't do: Focus just on your total award offer or tuition costs 

When you start receiving financial aid offers from schools, usually the first instinct is to strongly consider the school that's offered you the most amount of money. After all, the more aid you get, the more affordable that school should be. At least that's what a lot of people think. Or if you didn't receive a substantial award, another assumption is to think that schools with lower tuition rates might be your better choice financially. These assumptions can cause you to focus on only a few schools while dismissing the rest out of hand, one of which could be your dream school.

Don't assume just because one college's tuition costs are less than others or because one college is giving you more in grants and scholarships that it's the better value for the money. This may not always be the case.

Don't assume just because one college's tuition costs are less than others or because one college is giving you more in grants and scholarships that it's the better value for the money. This may not always be the case.

What you should do: Compare a school's grant and scholarship offer against what that school will be charging you

One of the true measure of a school's financial aid offer is how much you'll end up owing the school after your aid is applied against your charges.

When you attend college, you'll have a campus student account. Your school will bill that account each term for items like tuition, on-campus room/board charges, and fees. While tuition and room/board will make up a big part of your charges, it's the additional fees that can really make a difference in your total costs.

As an example, here's what St. Edward's typically charges an incoming freshman during the first year of college:

  • Tuition – each semester
  • Technology Fee – each semester
  • Housing Charge – each semester you're living in campus housing
  • Meal Plan – each semester you're a full-time student
  • Orientation Fee – one-time charge

There are a handful of other costs you might be charged, but only if you need them:

  • Health Insurance – each semester if you don't have your own coverage
  • Car Permit – once a year if you plan to park a car on campus
  • Monthly Payment Plan Fee – each semester you pay out your balance in monthly installments

At other schools, particularly public college and universities, you might have a lot more fees each year. In fact, those additional fees can add thousands to your semester's bill. Here's an example of the mandatory fees a regional state school charges their undergraduate students each semester beyond tuition and room/board: 

  • Athletics Fee
  • Bus Fee
  • Computer Service Fee
  • Environmental Service Fee
  • ID Services Fee
  • International Education Fee
  • Library Fee
  • Medical Services Fee
  • Recreational Sports Fee
  • Student Center Fee
  • Student Publication Fee
  • Student Service Fee
  • Student Success Fee

Each school will have its own set of specific fees although you'll find some in common like a car permit. And like with tuition, the amounts of fees will vary from school to school. So, figuring out your anticipated balance at each school is going to require some research and a little bit of basic math. It's absolutely worth the time, however, because even though you may have been awarded a larger scholarship at one school than at another, that school could still end up costing you more that you think, especially if they charge a lot more in fees.

...even though you may have been awarded a larger scholarship at one school than at another, that school could still end up costing you more that you think, especially if they charge a lot more in fees.

4 Simple Steps for Comparing Costs

  1. Look at your aid offers and add up how much each school is giving you in scholarship and grants, the preferred types of aid that you don't pay back. 
    Don't include work-study since you have to earn it over the course of the year by working in an on-campus job; plus earnings are paid directly to you instead of toward your balance. Also, don't include student or parent loan offers since those have to be paid back.
  2. Visit each college's website and locate their section on tuition and fees (here's ours). Total up your tuition, room/board and all the mandatory fees you'll be charged for both fall and spring. Don't forget that you might also be charged additional fees for optional items and services you choose to purchase. 
    Make sure you're looking at the right school year. Some college, particularly state schools, are slow to post new rates. Also, double-check you've found all the possible fees by either emailing, calling, or visiting the school's financial aid office. You can find your St. Edward's financial advisor's contact info in both your acceptance and award letters in case you have questions for us.
  3. Download our Comparing Actual School Costs. This worksheet provides space for you to total each school's charges and aid.
  4. Subtract each school's total grant and scholarship offer from its total costs for tuition, room/board, and fees to figure out your bottom lines.

Cost is important, but don't forget about value

After doing your comparisons, you may be surprised to discover that some of the more expensive schools you've applied to cost less than you thought, while some of the public schools actually cost more than you realized.  And maybe your first choice is just within a few thousand dollars of your other, less expensive choices. Now that you have a better idea of your actual costs, you can begin focusing on affordability in relationship to value. 

For some families, the extra investment in a school that provides opportunities such as a vibrant learning and living community, smaller class sizes, opportunities for global engagement, and nationally recognized academic programs are worth the additional expense. These are the factors that define your educational experience over the course of your college career and, in turn, shape the course of your life. So, in addition to comparing costs, research the programs offered at each school, talk to current students and be sure to visit the campus to help determine which school is right for you.

And finally, don't be afraid to ask questions. Speak with each of your school's financial aid office to explore ways to help manage your expenses during your first year as well as subsequent ones.  While some items like tuition and fees are typically fixed, you may be able to reduce costs by exploring less expensive residence halls or meal plans.  As you plan for your sophomore, junior, and seniors years, ask about opportunities for continuing student scholarships or even positions like a Resident Assistant which could help cover future housing costs.  All St. Edward's students have a financial advisor who'll work closely with you and your family during your time at the university to develop a customized financing plan tailored to your family's financial situation.

Additional Resources

The College Board's Big Future
In addition to administering the PSAT, SAT, and AP exams, the College Board provides numerous resources for college-bound freshmen including guides for understanding your financial aid offers and calculating your college costs.

College Score Card
This Department of Education website includes helpful information to help guide your college selection including graduation rates, post graduation earnings, typical education loan debt and monthly student loan repayment amounts (for those who borrow).

College For All Texans
This state website includes resources for Texas residents including sections on state financial aid programs as well as state public and private school costs (just remember to pay attention to which school year is listed).

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau
This federal website provides resources to help students and families compare college costs and financial aid offers.