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The 6 Most Important Financial Aid Questions to Ask

You’ve visited all the schools. You’ve submitted the FAFSA. You’ve made sure your student finished mounds of applications and scholarship essays.

Now it’s decision time.

Before you gather round the kitchen table and sort through those award letters, it’s important to make sure you have all the financial facts. But what do you need to know exactly?

We asked veteran financial aid director Brent Tener at Vanderbilt University to guide us through the most important questions to ask each potential school. Here are his top six financial FAQs to find out before buying that family pack of collegiate sweatshirts:

1. “What’s the net price for attending the school?”

Net price is defined as the total cost of attending the school minus any scholarships and grants. Once you know the net price of each school you are considering, it’s easier to compare the final out-of-pocket costs.

2. “Is there a way to obtain in-state tuition?”

Schools can offer in-state tuition for any number of reasons: It may be located in a neighboring state and you’re close enough that they offer you in-state tuition. Or they may offer it if you have a certain score on the ACT. This reduces your net price and acts just like a scholarship.

Related: Get Rachel Cruze’s advice for applying for scholarships

3. “What are the terms and conditions of this award?”

If the school is offering merit-based aid, like an engineering scholarship, ask, “What happens if my student changes his or her major to music?” or “Is there a GPA requirement to renew the scholarship?” And if the school isn’t making a commitment for four years, or if they’re a little bit vague on the terms, that could be a red flag.

Need-based aid, on the other hand, can vary from year to year for a few reasons: If the family’s income decreases, then the aid package might increase. But if the family wins the lottery, that need-based aid could go down. That’s because schools may review need each and every year.

4. “Is there a potential for more financial aid after freshman year?”

Many schools award financial aid as an incentive to enroll first-year students, so there may not be as much first-time money available when a student becomes a junior or senior.

Some schools, however, set aside money for upperclassmen that isn’t available for freshmen. Ask questions like, “Do you have scholarships for students once they declare a major?” or “Do you have scholarships for students if they excel academically each year?”

5. “Is this the best you can do?”

At some schools, as students decide not to come, more merit-based award money may become available. You never know unless you ask. It’s okay to call and say, “We’d really like to come to your school, but the cost is just a little bit too high. Is there any way we could narrow that gap?”

If it’s need-based money, though, it becomes more difficult. That’s because it’s based on income and assets, and those really aren’t negotiable. If there are changes in your family’s financial circumstances, ask the financial aid office to see if this will make a difference.

6. “You’re my top choice. Is there any other aid available?”

When you’re ready to enroll, call the financial aid office one last time. Since you lose some leverage after enrollment, it’s important to ask this question before your student officially becomes an undergrad. Most schools are going to do the best they can with the first offer. But again, you never know all the factors that are working behind the scenes, so it’s certainly great to ask again.

Some Final Reminders

Your goal should be to find the right fit for your student at the right price. That means no loans! Take the time to ask smart questions and set a budget for what you can afford. If you can’t pay for your student’s top school, be honest. They’ll still get a great education—somewhere else. Remember, one of the best graduation presents you can ever give your child is a debt-free start in life.

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