2) Crunch costs.
Check what's included in the college's cost estimate, said Kantrowitz. It should include indirect expenses like travel to and from campus and textbooks, as well as tuition, room and board. Fill in the blanks for any missing expenses so you can better compare different colleges' offers.
Look to see if the college estimates are reasonable, too, based on personal details like your student's major.
"A single physics or calculus textbook can cost you as much as $250," he said.
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3) Think long term.
"Look at [college cost] from a four-year perspective rather than a one-year perspective," Fudge said.
The aid package's addendum typically contains details like whether a scholarship can be renewed in future years, and under what circumstances, he said. That's also where you'll find any conditions your student has to meet to keep the aid, like meeting a minimum GPA.
A generous aid package as a freshman doesn't mean your student will be awarded the same deal as an upperclassman. Depending on the terms, a college offering a smaller amount of annual aid, but as a four-year award, might be the more valuable offer, he said. (CollegeNavigator.gov offers breakdowns of average aid for freshmen and for all undergraduate students.)
That multiyear assessment is a better gauge of affordability, Fudge said, and can help you figure out the best plan to pay for college.