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First Test For College Hopefuls? Decoding Financial Aid Letters

Colleges send each prospective student a letter detailing a financial aid award package — but many families say the letters are difficult to understand.

Around the country, millions of parents of prospective college freshman are puzzling over one big question: How will we pay for college?

The first step for many families is reviewing the financial aid award letters they receive from each school. But often those letters can be confusing. Some are filled with acronyms and abbreviations, others lump scholarships and loans together. And because they're often very different, they're also difficult to compare.

Chris Reeves, a guidance counselor at Beechwood High School in Fort Mitchell, Ky., tells NPR's David Greene that he fields lots of questions from families trying to decipher their award letters. "They don't always understand that part of the financial aid package includes loans," he says.

But loans "don't really reduce your costs," explains Mark Kantrowitz, founder of the financial aid website FinAid.org and publisher of Edvisors Network. "They simply spread them out over time. ... A loan is a loan. It has to be repaid, usually with interest – which increases your costs."

While the gap between the true cost of attendance and what a family can afford is often large, Reeves says there is sometimes wiggle room with individual financial aid offices.

Just last year, he says, one student was very close to being able to afford his choice school. "So, I just said, 'I think with a little bit more, he can make it.' And they came up with $1,000 more. And the student is attending and he's happy."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/

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