You finally got accepted into your first-choice nursing school and now you have to figure out if you can afford to go there. How do you do that? Take a long, exacting look at the award letter any school where you have been accepted sends you. Understanding the fine points in your financial aid award letter is crucial to making a financially sound decision.

What does your award letter really mean?

According to the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority (MEFA), there are several ways colleges can give you money, but each one means something different. If a college says it meets 100 percent of your full financial need, realize that a big chunk of that money could be in the form of interest-bearing loans that have to be paid back or it could be in the form of free-money scholarships. It’s up to you to know the difference so you can compare costs accurately.

Money That’s Yours

Grants or scholarships can come from private organizations, government sources, or your school. Grants and scholarships include funds you use for your education and don’t need to be paid back. Many schools give need-based or merit-based scholarships, so if your financial situation changes or your grades don’t meet the scholarship requirements, your funds could be withdrawn. Know what each grant or scholarship requires so you continue to meet the correct requirements.

Money You Have to Pay Back

Any kind of loan, whether it’s a Stafford loan, a PLUS parent loan, or a private bank loan, needs to be paid back. If you are taking out loans or they are awarded to you as part of your financial aid package, pay attention to the interest rates and the repayment plan once you graduate. Calculate the monthly cost over four (or more) years of accruing loans and interest. If the figure startles you, you might want to consider another school with a better package.

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Something in the Middle

Work study awards afford you the opportunity to make money through an on-campus job. Work study jobs are often found in a cafeteria, in a library, in an office, or even in a lab environment. The money isn’t given to you by the school outright – you earn it through the job. So although the school has the money on your award letter, you’re responsible for the cost up front. For example, if your work study award is for $1,000, you’re responsible for finding a job on campus from available work study job openings. You generally pay the college the money up front with your tuition bill, but then you get it back as you work at your work study position.

Financial aid packages vary greatly from school to school and can depend on something as simple as your need, your grades, and the school’s available funds. If you have any kind of special circumstance, call the financial aid office and set up an appointment to talk about it. They might not be able to budge on the amount of aid they are offering, but you won’t ever know unless you ask.

Julia Quinn-Szcesuil
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