Understand The True Cost of College Attendance by Decoding Award Letters

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They’ve waited. They’ve watched the mail for weeks. Finally, the letter arrived: Students are getting notice that they’ve been accepted to the school of their dreams! But after the moment of excitement and congratulations wears off , the realization sets in: it’s going to cost money to go to school.

Even if a family has prepared for years, saving money, investing in 529 plans and being on top of completing their student’s FAFSA, now is a crucial time to pay attention to information from schools and have a clear understanding of the financial aid award letter.



Financial aid award letters are sent to students in the weeks after receiving their acceptance letter to a school and reflects the cost of attendance as well as the financial options available to families to help pay for their student’s education. As the letters state, a student’s place in the schools incoming class cannot be reserved until a deposit is received based on the financial award letter. But families should take the time to understand their award letter before submitting any form of deposit, as these deposits are not refundable if a student decides not to attend a particular school.

Currently, there is no standard format for schools to report the financial aid being offered to a student. So families should use these tips to better understand what is being offered and make a smart comparison between what different schools will cost. The school with the lowest tuition fees might not always be the best financial choice thanks to financial aid awards. Knowing how to read the financial aid award letter can make all the difference.

  1. Find “free money”
    Many schools offer students institutional scholarships or grants. These types of funding can be seen as “free money” because students and families don’t have to repay this money after graduation. Make sure to look for words such as “scholarship” or “grant” in the name of the financial award. These awards are often given to students based on the information in the Student Aid Report created when completing the FAFSA, based on income or family responsibility. Families may miss these awards because they do not technically apply for them separately.
  1. Consider loans and work study options separately
    To help show families how they can meet the cost of attendance at their school, award letters will also include options that require repayable loans or other options that require further action by the student, such as work study programs. Since there is no standard format for separating these options from other “free money,” families need to recognize that any loans taken out, be they private or federal Stafford loans, will require repayment by either the student or parent (depending on the loan) after graduation. This is not funds being offered by the school, but money that will require repayment.
  1. Know the difference between “direct” and “indirect” costs.
    Attending college features a variety of costs, but not all of them will necessarily be covered the financial aid offered in the award letter. The “cost of attendance” on a financial aid award letter applies to direct school costs, such as tuition, room and board. Indirect costs, such as books for classes or travel to and from school are not considered in an award letter. These costs are those that the student and family will have to bear personally.
  1. Determine if awards are for one year or more.
    Many families fall into the trap of thinking that the financial award letter reflects the costs and awards for all four years of school when, in reality, the letter reflects the cost for one year of school. While many of the loans listed on an award letter will be available to students each year, many of the grants or scholarships listed may require a new application each year or, in some cases, are only available for one year. Determining which of these awards are renewable, or the length of the award, can help families avoid an unpleasant surprise.
  1. Make sure the award letter is final.
    In some cases, an award letter might not reflect the final amount of aid being offered to a student. If any section of the letter uses words such as “estimated,” “tentative” or “pending,” the school may not have all the information from a student’s FAFSA or other document needed to make a final determination of aid. Once this information is provided, it may have an impact on the amount of aid that the student is finally offered.

Understanding the financial award letter that students receive can lead to some difficult decisions about where a student should go to school. By making the best effort to compare award letters from all schools that have accepted a student, families can make an informed choice of which school fits best with a student’s goals while creating a financial plan that will avoid any bad surprises or unexpected debt down the road.


Early Admissions Can Save Time, Money

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As larger numbers of students apply to college and colleges compete for quality students who are dedicated to their school, colleges and universities have expanded the application options available to students in order to not only manage applicant pools but also increase the number of candidates that they consider “high-quality.” When considering the college application process, it’s important for families to understand each type of admission program and what those programs require.


Early Action
Colleges that offer “early action” application do so to give families a quick response to those who submit on or before their early deadline (typically early November). Early Action admission decisions are non-binding, which means that students do not have to promise to attend if accepted. They just hear back sooner. Some universities offer “Restricted Early Action,” which works much like Early Action, but limits the number of EA applications a student can submit to other schools. Colleges do this because they are looking for students who are committed to them instead of just applying early to find out sooner. While families can benefit from the quick response of applying “early action” they face an smaller applicant pool that will usually have strong candidates and a possibly more selective admissions process.

Early Decision
Where many early action applications require little commitment, early decision applications are more serious. Student should only apply early decision to a college if they are certain that it is the college they wish to attend. Students accepted on early decision are required to attend the college at which they were applied and accepted, as well as withdraw all other applications.

Some colleges also offer an “ED II,” which allows students extra time to apply, allowing for more research, and application preparation. ED II applications often have deadlines that are the same the regular application deadline, but receive an earlier decision, usually in early February.

For a student with a clear vision of where they want to go to school, early decision applications offer a great advantage. Not only will they be informed of a decision earlier, but they also show the admissions office that they are a student dedicated to attending their school. If they are accepted, the student has the rest of their senior year to enjoy (early decision applicants usually hear back in December). If they are deferred or rejected, there is still plenty of time to regroup and apply to other colleges.

However, students that want to compare financial aid packages may want to hold off from early decision applications and the locked-in commitment that comes with them. Being able to look at different schools and compare costs can often show a student that their dream school might not be the best long-term decision, financially.

Regular Application
Regular application deadlines are later than early action or early decision applications and is the time when the majority of students will submit their applications.

Having a set timeline for applications helps students take more time to reflect on their goals, visit colleges, research and narrow down a list of schools that are the best fit for their needs. Students are not limited to the number of schools to which they apply, though each school will require an application processing fee when submitting an application. Applying by regular deadlines, allows students the luxury of comparing financial aid awards and admission offers without any restrictions that might come with early applications before choosing the college that is a perfect fit and meets his financial need.

Rolling Admissions
Colleges with rolling admissions offer important options and opportunities that regular deadlines do not. Rolling admissions colleges will accept and examine applications as they are sent in, instead of waiting to judge all applications at the same time. This admissions option can be great for late admissions, or for finding out early whether or not a student is accepted.

College Fairs Offer Students a Great Tool for Finding College Fit

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The new starting date for filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is just about here. Completing the FAFSA, though, isn’t the end of the road for college preparation. Throughout the school year, students have opportunities to visit with colleges and find out more about what each school offers and how that school does (or doesn’t) relate to a student’s plan for their future.

Making that match is called “college fit” and it can mean the difference between getting the most of education after high school and frustrations that could lead to transferring schools or, worse, not completing a degree.


The good news: Colleges offer tours that allow students to see the campus, talk to professors and students and get answers to questions about their education. Even better: Students can get much of that information without even leaving their own high school thanks to college fairs held throughout the year. These events, often held at the local high school, include representatives from schools both near and far looking to put their best foot forward for prospective students.

College fairs are the first step toward finding college fit and students who attend college fairs will get a head-start on making a smart choice on where to go to school. As with anything, approaching the event with a game plan will help students get even more out of college fairs.
Start with these five tips:

  1. Is a college strong in a student’s major? Not all high school students are going to have an idea of what their major will be, but it helps to have some idea of what they might be interested in as a career. If students have an idea, they can ask schools about programs in those areas. Some colleges specialize in certain majors or are known for having strong programs in particular fields.
  2. Does a school’s size matter? Larger schools often mean more students in classes (sometimes over 100 students), but a bustling community. Smaller colleges might have fewer students, but that might mean more direct interaction with teachers and smaller class sizes. A student can talk to representatives at a college fair to get an idea of the school’s size and start to consider which appeals to them.
  3. What’s college life like? While a visit to the actual campus will give students the best idea of what life is like at a given school, college fairs frequently include representatives from schools who are either current students or recent graduates. Of course, these representatives will always look to emphasize what makes their school better than the rest, but talking to college students is a great way for high school students to get an early idea of what life is like in college.
  4. Take all the materials available. Schools visiting college fairs will have lots of giveaways: stickers, squeezeballs, pens, and more. But the most important materials to take away from college fairs are the informational brochures that talk more about the school. These materials might not answer every question a student might have about a school, but they will frequently include websites or links to other resources to learn more if interested.
  5. Make notes, take it all in, but don’t rush to any decisions. College fairs are the introduction to schools for many students and representatives are chosen by schools to present their school in the most attractive way possible. It’s great if students are inspired to learn more about schools after a college fair. But rather than eliminate schools from their list, students would be better off ranking a list of schools that grabbed their attention and listing the reasons why that school might be a good fit. From there, it’s easy to start researching further into which schools should really make the cut.

For more tips and advice for preparing and planning for college, as well as financial aid and college information, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College.” You can read, download or order your own copy on our website.


Hit Senior Year Running With These College Prep Tips

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All that hard work is about to pay off! Senior year is the last, and most important, year of high school. Those students and families who have followed our “Your Course to College” tips on preparing for college during their freshman, sophomore and junior years will be ready to roll right into senior year preparations.

For those who haven’t… Fear not! There’s still time to put together a senior year checklist that will help students and families plan for education after high school without getting overwhelmed. Here are some tips to help stay on the path to college in this crucial year:


  • Review coursework with your school counselor to be sure you have taken (or are scheduled to take) all the courses you will need for admission to your preferred colleges.
  • If you plan to take the ACT or SAT again to improve your score, make sure to register for a date that is at least two months ahead of the application deadlines for all of the colleges and scholarships you are considering.
  • Prepare a final list of colleges and submit admission applications. Most early decision and early action college applications are due in October 1.
  • Complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online at as soon after October 1 as possible. The FAFSA is the first step in the financial aid process. Check with your school of interest for its priority financial aid deadline.
  • Ask your high school to send your official transcripts to the colleges where you are applying for admission.
  • Compare acceptance letters and financial aid awards. Upon admittance, each college or university listed on your FAFSA will send you an award letter that will include the financial aid that you are eligible to receive.
  • Take AP exams for any AP subjects you studied in high school. Some colleges may
    award college credit for the course work based on your exam score. Go to for AP exam information.
  • Decision time! Choose your college and notify them by mailing your commitment deposit check.
  • Talk to those who have been there! Iowa College Aid’s “Education Empowers” video series provides testimonials of students who faced (and overcame) challenges in getting to college.

For more tips and advice to help prepare, plan and succeed in college, check out Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College.” This free guide offers advice on everything from finding the right college and narrowing down a major to showing families the steps to finding financial aid and even loan repayment programs for after graduation. “Planning for Our Futures” is a publication produced by Iowa College Aid, Treasurer of State and the Iowa Department of Insurance that takes a closer look at the financial options for families looking to prepare for education after high school.

Put Your College Plan Into Action With These Tips for Juniors

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Planning can make all the difference between calm and panic. That certainly holds true for putting together a plan for getting to college. We’ve already discussed the easy ways that freshmen and sophomores can be set on the path for college.

Come junior year, it’s time for the rubber to hit the road. With only two years before high school graduation, students and families can put their college plan into action early enough to not find themselves scrambling come senior year. Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College” offers tips that will help families in their junior and senior years of high school execute their college plans to perfection.


Here are a few things to get on the calendar for junior year to help with college planning:

  • Now is the time to really focus on your career and college research. Determine which colleges offer programs that interest you.
  • Take the PSAT in the fall of your junior year to be considered for a National Merit Scholarship. Plus, it’s good practice for the SAT!
  • Attend college fairs and go on college visits. Call ahead to schedule appointments with financial aid and admissions offices.
  • Take the SAT or ACT in the spring and have the official scores sent to the schools that interest you. Download a free ACT preparation booklet from Find free official test prep for the SAT through the College Board and Khan Academy at
  • Ask for letters of recommendation. Identify teachers, counselors, employers or other adults who can attest to your academic achievement and abilities and ask that they write letters of recommendation for scholarship applications or admissions applications, if needed.

For more tips and advice on planning for, applying to and succeeding in your education after high school, check out “Your Course to College.” Iowa College Aid also publishes a guide for families looking for more information on financially planning for their student’s education. “Planning for Our Futures” is produced in conjunction with Iowa Insurance Division, Treasurer of State and the Iowa Department of Education. Both publications are free to families.

Take Virtual Tours, Learn More About Iowa’s Private Colleges

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Iowa’s diverse group of private, not-for-profit colleges and universities offer students an educational option after high school that can present smaller classes and a greater likelihood of finishing a degree in four years. Iowa Private College Week celebrates these schools and showcases the unique qualities of each of the 25 campuses throughout the state, while encouraging virtual or on-site campus tours to learn more about what each campus uniquely offers students.

We’re honoring Iowa Private College Week by highlighting the participating schools and featuring a sneak preview of each school’s profile from Iowa College Aid’s upcoming 2016-17 “Your Course to College” publication (previous posts from Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday). “Your Course to College” gives students and families a gameplan for preparing for education after high school, including identifying possible areas of study, determining what to look for in a school, important steps for financial aid and more. Profiles of each Iowa college and university give families a snapshot of each school. Here are five more of the private colleges participating in Iowa Private College Week.

Mercy College of Health Science, Des Moines, IA


Enrollment: 800; Tuition & Fees: Full time $8,460 per semester, Part time $586/credit
(Fees vary by program, please see for complete details); Est. Off-Campus Room & Board: $5,430; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,528; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: July 1; Types of Programs: Nursing (AS & BS), Physical Therapist Assistant (AS), Radiologic Technology (AS), Surgical Technology (Cert/AS), Cardiac and Abdominal Sonography (AS), Medical Laboratory Science (Cert), Health Care Administration (BS), Health Science (BS), Medical Assisting (Cert/AS), and Emergency Medical Services – Paramedic (Cert/AS)

Mercy College of Health Sciences is on the forefront of health science education; it’s our focus and what we do. Our students major in subjects that lead to high demand careers in healthcare. While you’re here studying, you’ll be challenged to get involved and make a difference on campus and throughout the community. Health science majors make a difference in lives every day – while in school and once they translate their major into a career of service.

In fact, as healthcare undergoes dramatic change, the demand for the skills you acquire at Mercy College will only grow.

As a Catholic educational institution, we want to help you discover the gifts God has given you and help you prepare for a career of service to others. There are endless possibilities in healthcare to use your gifts and we’ll not only prepare you for licensure or certification in your eventual career field, but help to transform your gifts to bring relief and healing to some and comfort and spiritual support to others. Mercy College can help you to get started.

Morningside College, Sioux City, IA


Enrollment: 2,824; Tuition & Fees: $29,094; On-Campus Room & Board: $9,190; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,253; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: December 1; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts, General, Teacher Preparation & Professional

The Morningside College experience cultivates a passion for lifelong learning and a dedication to ethical leadership and civic responsibility. Morningside College offers a total experience. Students develop various dimensions of themselves through the liberal arts core curriculum, a complete range of majors, internships, independent study and career and graduate school advising services.

Within six months of graduation, more than 98 percent of graduates are employed or admitted to graduate school.

Mount Mercy University, Cedar Rapids, IA


Enrollment: 1,877; Tuition & Fees: $29,696; On-Campus Room & Board: $8,900; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,200; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: March 1; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts and Professional Programs

Be valued.

Mount Mercy offers baccalaureate and graduate education to nearly 1,900 enrolled students, uniquely blending liberal arts learning with professional career development and a strong commitment to serving the common good. Undergraduates can choose from over 45 majors and minors and strong programs in biology, business, criminal justice, education, English, psychology and nursing. Dedicated faculty members inspire students to lead and serve. The University offers an array of scholarships and financial aid for all incoming first-year and transfer students, including the Catherine McAuley free tuition scholarship to qualifying Iowa high school graduates whose family income is $45,000 or less annually.

Northwestern College, Orange City, IA


Enrollment: 1,210; Tuition & Fees: $29,300; On-Campus Room & Board: $8,900; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,300; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: April 1; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts and Sciences, General, Teacher Preparation, and Pre- Professional, Master’s degree in education

Northwestern College is a Christian academic community that both challenges and supports students as it develops their minds and empowers their faith. Opportunities for meaningful involvement and service enlarge students’ worldviews and prepare them for fulfilling careers and faithful lives as thinking Christians.

The academic program includes more than 80 programs and numerous opportunities for off-campus study. Northwestern students are taught by award-winning faculty with doctorates from such institutions as Notre Dame, Duke, UCLA and Yale. Many construction projects have taken place in the past decade on Northwestern’s campus, including the student center, facilities for the arts and athletics, student housing and a $14 million learning commons.

Simpson College, Indianola, IA


Enrollment: 1,629 undergraduate; Tuition & Fees: $35,876; On-Campus Room & Board: $7,963; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,253; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: February 1; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts and General, Teacher Preparation

Simpson College is more than a beautiful campus. The College has an outstanding faculty and renowned curricula, including more than 80 majors, minors and pre-professional opportunities, including internships, career observations and study programs both abroad and in the United States.

We offer 18 varsity sports for men and women in a highly successful NCAA Division III athletic program. We also offer a large intramural program and many student clubs and organizations.

Located just 12 miles from Des Moines, Iowa’s capital and largest metropolitan area, Simpson’s ideal location allows students the opportunity to enjoy both city sophistication and small-town charm. The beautiful 75-acre tree-lined campus provides a setting that nurtures creativity, energy and productivity.

Iowa Private College Week Highlights Time, Money Savings of Private Colleges

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From Aug. 1-5, Iowa Private College Week recognizes the independent colleges and universities throughout Iowa that offer students smaller class sizes and more direct interaction with professors (on average at a ratio of 12 students per instructor) than larger Regent universities. This more focused approach can lead to students finishing their degree in less time than Regent Universities. According to Iowa College Aid’s 2016 “Condition of Higher Education Report,” 81% of students at private, not-for-profit colleges finish their degree in four years, while 60% finish their degree in the same time at Regent universities.

Throughout Iowa Private College Week, we’re highlighting Iowa’s private colleges (day one, day two),with sneak previews of each school’s listing in the upcoming 2016-17 “Your Course to College Guide.” “Your Course to College” is an annual guide published by Iowa College Aid that features tips and advice for students preparing for college as early as their freshman year of high school, as well as featuring updated profiles of all of Iowa’s colleges and universities. For more information on “Your Course to College” visit Iowa College Aid’s website.

Grandview University, Des Moines, IA


Enrollment: 2,100; Tuition & Fees: $25,474; On-Campus Room & Board: $8,172; Est. Books & Supplies: $880; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: March 1; Types of Programs:
40 majors including: Education, Nursing, Business, Art & Design, Biology, Pre-Professional

Grand View is a private liberal arts university founded in 1896. We offer 40 majors, including evening/weekend programs and four master’s programs. For more than two decades, nearly 100% of our graduates have been placed within six months of graduation.At Grand View, we’ll personally guide you to a quality education that’s affordable — in fact, at a cost comparable to or less than the published prices of state schools. GV COMPLETE, a program tailored to your personal circumstances, will help you plan and finance your entire, four-year degree before you even start classes, reduce your costs, and help you graduate on time. You won’t find this level of personal attention to both finances and academic success anywhere else. Innovation at Grand View doesn’t stop there. Our new core curriculum will transform you into a thinker who can find and interpret information, come to conclusions, and communicate those verbally and in writing. You’ll be able to solve problems in and outside of the workplace, and in your personal life as an informed citizen who connects with community needs. You’ll become aware of yourself and be able to relate to and understand our diverse and changing world. You’ll be equipped to engage with the tasks of life and empowered to pursue your goals.

Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA


Enrollment: 1,660; Tuition & Fees: $48,758; On-Campus Room & Board: $11,408; Est. Books & Supplies: $900; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: February 1; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts & Sciences

Established in 1846, Grinnell College is a world-renowned liberal arts college of 1,600 students. Grinnell’s academic atmosphere is challenging but extremely collaborative. The College imposes no standard core curriculum, and each student works closely with a faculty adviser to develop a curriculum tailored to the student’s own academic and professional goals.

Students come to Grinnell from around the globe: eight percent are from Iowa, another 15 percent come from as many as 50 countries and 25 percent are U.S. students of color. All are warmly welcomed at Grinnell, where student life is further enhanced by the College’s state-of-the-art, sophisticated facilities and annual cultural offerings, which include 100-plus lectures, 70-plus concerts and dozens of plays and performances. Grinnell’s unparalleled resources, rigorous academics and inclusive community result in Grinnell students being some of the most highly satisfied with their college choice.

Iowa Wesleyan University, Mt. Pleasant, IA


Enrollment: 500; Tuition & Fees: $27,286; On-Campus Room & Board: $9,576; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,188; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: April 1; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts, General and Teacher Preparation and Nursing

Iowa Wesleyan College, established in 1842, is one of the oldest private, coeducational colleges west of the Mississippi River. The mission of Iowa Wesleyan College is to prepare students to succeed in a changing global environment. Iowa Wesleyan is a four-year liberal arts college providing quality individualized learning experiences that combine the development of the intellect with adaptive life skills. The College is affiliated with the United Methodist Church with which it shares a commitment to spiritual values, social justice and human welfare.

Loras College, Dubuque, IA


Enrollment: 1,569; Tuition & Fees: $31,525; On-Campus Room & Board: $7,700; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,100; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: April 15; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts and General, Teacher Preparation, Pre-Professional Programs

Established in 1839, the Loras College campus is nestled high atop the majestic bluffs of the Mississippi River in Dubuque, Iowa, and overlooks the states of Illinois, Wisconsin and Iowa. With an enrollment of just under 1,600, Loras is small enough to be personal, yet large enough to provide students a well-rounded academic and co-curricular experience. Relating the rich liberal arts tradition to a changing world, Loras strives to develop active learners, reflective thinkers, ethical decision makers and responsible contributors in their diverse professional, social and religious roles.

Loras has over 175 years of educational history and embraces its heritage and traditions, while continually evaluating its offerings to reflect current and future student and workplace needs. Loras offers distinctive educational programs, from Modes of Inquiry, designed to help first year students transition into liberal arts learning to January term courses, offering an intensive, accelerated 3-week term featuring a variety of courses, across the disciplines, which emphasize experiential learning. Numerous Loras programs compete against schools like Harvard, Drake and large public universities and are consistently ranked nationally — Sport Management, Media Studies, Mediation, Dance Marathon, Men’s and Women’s Soccer, and other athletic programs, just to mention a few. The educational and personal experiences in and outside of the classroom make Loras a destination for nearly 1,600 students.

Signature programs such as media studies, business analytics, STEM Education and kinesiology/masters of athletic training, differentiate Loras College and allow students to access 21st century work skills at both the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Luther College, Decorah, IA


Enrollment: 2,337; Tuition & Fees: $40,040; On-Campus Room & Board: $8,500; Est. Books & Supplies: $1,040; Priority Deadline for Aid Filing: February 1; Types of Programs: Liberal Arts

Founded in 1861, Luther College is a four-year, liberal arts institution affiliated with the Lutheran Church (ELCA). One of the outstanding undergraduate institutions in the Midwest, Luther offers more than 60 majors and pre-professional programs leading to the bachelor of arts degree. Ninety-three percent of Luther’s 177 full-time faculty hold an earned doctorate or terminal degree. A Phi Beta Kappa chapter attests to the academic excellence of the college. The student body represents 39 states and 65 countries. Co-curricular activities include 14 music ensembles and 19 intercollegiate sports, and nearly 75 percent of students study away prior to graduation. The scenic Decorah campus, with exceptional facilities and vistas of the Oneota Valley and the Upper Iowa River, rivals any in the region.