As college acceptance letters start making their way to mailboxes and inboxes, families' next big dilemma is figuring out which offers are affordable based on the financial aid award letter. That's not as easy as you might think.
"Prepare to be confused," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president at Edvisors.com. "These letters are sales and marketing documents. They're designed to make you think you can afford this school."
Financial aid letters also use a variety of formats, requiring some number crunching on the recipient's part to make an apples-to-apples comparison of different college offers. (Check out the video above for tips to calculate your real cost based on aid letter offers.)
When in doubt, call the college to ask what a particular line item means, said Jodi Then, an education advisor with American Student Assistance's College Planning Center. A variety of acronyms, abbreviations and terms can make it tough to decipher what's being offered—and more importantly, whether it's a grant that doesn't have to be paid back, or a loan that does. "It's really important for families to ask those questions," she said.