If you or your child has just been admitted to college, chances are you're in a numbers game. A financial aid numbers game, that is.
Colleges issue financial aid awards to families on the heels of acceptance letters, and the numbers can look pretty impressive. But those award letters can also be confusing, and interpreting them the wrong way can cost you thousands of dollars.
Some colleges mix loans and grants in seemingly random fashion. Others fail to clearly identify loans as loans, or phrase their offers as if the loans are free money. In some cases, colleges fail to mention the cost of items such as textbooks.
"Fundamentally, award letters aren't really a counseling tool. They are marketing documents," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors Network. "Their goal is to show you how you can afford the school, even if you really can't."
While 2,000 colleges have adopted a common format for their award letters, the majority have not, he added.
"There is no standardization because if you could easily compare, you could realize which school is more affordable," Kantrowitz said.