How to read the college offer

Do you know how to read hieroglyphics? I hope so because if you are the mom or dad of someone entering college in the Fall, you’ll need to understand hieroglyphics to decipher the financial information that US colleges will be sending your way.

Please note that you should be receiving several of these in the Spring. Why several? Because you should never just apply to the one school your son or daughter wants to attend. It is always wise to at least apply to one safe school (that you know you can afford and will accept your child), at least one dream school (that you and your child would be excited about if accepted and the finances work out), and at least one school that is likely to be a competitor of your favorite school (but that might offer you a better price than they will). CollegeAssistancePlus can explain this a whole lot better than me if you sign up with them. They are expensive but have saved me thousands.

Sample College Offer

I’ve seen more than my share of these statements over the years as I’ve helped my children and some missionaries figure out what is best for them and their kiddo. What follows is a bit of a mashup of some of the worst practices I’ve seen. They are very much based on reality. If we can understand this one, we can understand whatever comes our way:

Financial Aid Award Commitment
from “We Love U”
for Johnny B. Haive
Student Number: 123456789
on February 28, 20xx

Dear Johnny,

The following is our Financial Aid Award Commitment to you.

Estimated Cost of Attendance

  • Tuition  $35,500
  • Room & Board  $15,000
  • Fees  $500
  • Total Direct Costs  $56,000

Financial Aid Package

  • Fed Pell Grant  $5,500
  • Fed Perkins L  $2,000
  • Fed SEOG Grant  $2,000
  • Fed Sub Staff.  $3,500
  • Pres Scholarship  $4,000
  • Fed Unsub Staff.  $2,000
  • Parent Plus L  $23,000
  • Total Financial Aid  $42,000

Expected Net Cost  $9,000

Sounds great, right? Well, let’s unpack this a bit.

How Much Will this Cost Johnny’s Family?

Mr. and Mrs. Haive are looking over Johnny’s shoulder as he opens the letter and reads this. Their eyes quickly drop to the bottom line, and their excitement just grows. They are both thinking, “Wow, that’s fantastic! Our son is so smart that it’s only going to cost him (or us) $9,000 to go to a $56,000 university.”

Sorry, dad and mom, that’s not what this means. Not by a long shot.

1. The Total Costs are Not the Total Costs

The Panic Button

Probably the least important defect in this statement is that the total costs here of $56,000 do not represent all of the costs. Books tend to run at least $1,000 per semester. There will be lab fees, qualifications testing, and more along the way. Are you going to buy your kid a mini-fridge or carpeting? Are you going to pay for Johnny’s laundry? What are the costs of traveling to Friendly Neighborhood College compared to Far-Far-Away University? The total costs are not the total costs.

2. The Bottom Line is Not the Bottom Line

A second observation is that these parents are not going to be paying just $9,000 a year. Even if that number were accurate, and it is not, college costs are going up by about 5% a year, so Johnny’s parents will be paying significantly more by the time their son gets his degree in 4 (we hope!) years. While the costs may be going up by 5%, Johnny’s “aid” will likely not be. So, if that $9,000 in year one were accurate, that number would probably be about $10,500 in year two, $12,000 in year three and $13,500 in year four.

Please understand the importance of that “we hope!” above. Four years cost significantly less than 5 or 6 or more and some forms of aid don’t renew after the fourth year. According to the New York Times way back in 2014, “At most public universities, only 19 percent of full-time students earn a bachelor’s degree in four years.” There are lots of reasons for that, and sometimes it is the institution’s fault. For example, some universities simply don’t offer the necessary classes in the necessary order to allow the students to graduate. Be sure to check out the college’s graduation rates, because if kiddo is there five or six years, the finances get really ugly!

We just saw that the total cost isn’t the total cost and the bottom line is not the bottom line, but if you look closely at all of that wonderful “Financial Aid Package,” you will sadly discover that…

3. The Aid is Not All Aid

Part 1: What’s the missing L-word?

That aid section looks really generous, right? Did you notice anything wrong with it? Did you observe that your university of choice suddenly seemed to run out of ink and couldn’t print out the end of some words? Oddly enough there was always room to write out the word “grant” or “scholarship.” Grants and scholarships are free money and they are wonderful things! Those really are “aid”! The government gave you two kinds of grants and the college added a scholarship so that’s really wonderful news. Really it is!

Now for those missing letters. We find “Fed Perkins L.” and “Parent Plus L.” Yes, I really did copy those lines from an actual statement! You did notice each “L,” right? Many don’t. If you don’t know what it stands for, go do a quick search for “Fed Perkins L.” or “Parent Plus L.” It’s okay; I’ll wait right here for you. Hurry back!

Hey, welcome back! So you figured out that “L” doesn’t stand for “largesse” or “legacy” or even “love.” Rather, it stands for that ugliest of L-words: loan. That’s right, this university listed two large loan programs under the heading of aid.

This is akin to calling your mortgage “a gift” and your car loan “a help.” Since when is a loan considered “financial aid”? It should be noted that plenty of schools do not use this deceptive reporting method. I’ve seen several Christian schools in particular use the headings: Costs, Financial Aid, and Loan Eligibility. I like that a lot better, but they still often give a bottom line that says something like, “Final Cost After Financial Aid  $9,000.” That again implies that Johnny’s loans and daddy and mommy’s loans are some sort of aid or grace that was bestowed on them and that the bottom line is a mere $9,000. It most certainly isn’t.

But, hey, it gets worse! There are still two more sets of missing letters.

Part 2: What’s this “Staff” stuff?

The college’s generous offer includes “Fed Sub Staff.” and “Fed Unsub Staff.”

Are we really supposed to understand what that means? Is “staff” something Moses held? Is “staff” an infection? You’re getting closer when you think of these as infections. Both of these Staff lines are that unseemly, growing infection called loans. Those two ultra-shortened lines are college shorthand for Federal Subsidized Stafford Loans and Federal Unsubsidized Stafford Loans.

In all of my tv dramas, “unsub” means “Unknown Subject Of An Investigation.” Well, this Stafford Unsub is well known, but it is still very much under investigation.

Part 3: How much isn’t covered by this “aid” package?

At first blush, the college’s financial plan for our son, Johnny B. Haive, sounded like this:

  • Total Cost  $56,000
  • Total Aid  $47,000
  • Total to be Paid  $9,000
College Assistance Plus
love College Assistance Plus! They’ve done a lot for my family.

That total of $9,000 seemed like a lot of money to pay every year, but this family decides they could make it work. Johnny can get a summer job, dad can sell his collection of arrowheads, and mom can ask for a boost in pay from their nonprofit organization. They thought they could do this, until you and I sat them down with them to crunch the numbers and dissect the college code words and letters. Together, we now realize that it will probably break down more like this:

  • Total Cost  $60,000
  • Total Aid from Grants and Scholarships  $11,500
  • Total So-Called Aid from Loans  $30,500
  • Total Net Cost after Loans  $9,000

Above I’ve simply added some modest costs for books and travel and then separated the grants and scholarships (the free money!) from the loans (which are not so free!). So, if this family manages to scrape together the $9,000 per year as suggested by the university, someone – probably poor Johnny – will still owe about $122,000 (that’s the annual loan amount of $30,500 multiplied by 4 years). That’s assuming they pay the $9,000 per year, that there is no increase in costs at the college and that Johnny doesn’t change majors and end up staying 5 or 6 years.

Did I get my math wrong, tell me in the comments below. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so. All of this means that after paying $9,000 per year, they and their kiddo will still end up with at least…

$122,000 in debt!

It’s About More Than Money

Any student who is going into a career with an expected modest income – teachers, missionaries, nonprofit workers and the like – will have a difficult time paying off $122,000 in a lifetime. If dear Johnny applies to his parents’ mission agency to follow in their footsteps, they may tell him he can’t afford to become a missionary.

Or, maybe in your case, it is your daughter, and she wants to be a pro-bono lawyer to defend the defenseless. She might come to realize that she can only pay that debt by going into corporate law.

Perhaps even dad and mom will decide they need to crush this debt, but they soon realize they can’t do it on a nonprofit wage, so they leave the service and the people group they love to go earn some “real money” in the USA.

Now, do you see why I turned to CollegeAssistancePlus for help? I felt like the stakes were too high to go it alone.

Whether we seek outside help or not, we need to understand these financial aid packages before signing on the dotted line. The ramifications of making a poor decision are much more significant than we realize, and they go far beyond mere dollars and cents.

Michael A. Carlson

I have a passion for introducing Europeans to Jesus, starting churches of any shape or size, teaching, writing, and training. I also love to equip Europeans and missionaries through my websites such as and