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Tips for decoding college financial aid offers

Elie Kapengut, 18, a freshman at Rutgers University, said her school's first aid letter included student loans. However, he did not want to borrow, so he did not take the necessary steps to accept the loans. A revised help letter showed that the loans had been eliminated, he said.

But a subsequent statement included an apparent credit for more than $ 2,700, mysteriously labeled "FINAID DUNSB OFFERS," Kapengut said. It was listed along with other scholarship credits, and the balance of the invoice was calculated as if the funds had been applied.

The money turned out to be a loan, Kapengut said, so he visited the school's financial aid office and withdrew it. It didn't end up costing him more than a "nuisance," he said, but it seemed that some students might end up borrowing money without realizing it.

Rutgers said in an email statement that his letters of student aid grant follow the template recommended by the federal Department of Education. All students who submit the FAFSA, the federal student aid application, receive the same electronic award letter, which includes a section for loans. The loan section shows the amount borrowed and offers an option for the student to reject the loan.

"If a student does not complete the form to refuse the award letter loan, the loan will appear on the student's term bill," Rutgers said.

To compare offers of help, student advocates recommend that you first determine the total cost of attending each university, including "direct" costs such as tuition, fees, accommodation on campus and meal plans, and "indirect" costs such as books, supplies, transportation and other expenses. If your help letter does not include a breakdown of these costs, call the financial aid office, visit the university's website or try the tools at University browser of the Department of Education.

Then, subtract any "gift aid," which includes grants, including federal Pell grants based on needs, and scholarships.

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