Navigating Financial Aid Offers From Colleges

I’m pleased to introduce a special guest author, Sharron Starling. Sharron is a college admissions professional for Cornish College of the Arts, so she has inside knowledge about the process of applying for college and what happens after you get accepted.

In this quick article, Sharron is going to give you a crash course on navigating the financial aid offers you get from colleges: comparing costs, figuring out what you’ll be expected to pay, negotiating better offers, and coming up with payment plans.

And if you’re looking for more information or personalized support, send us an email to schedule a session with Sharron.


Greg Smith

A highway road sign with several options, all of which point to learning.

Congratulations! Your student now has several offers of admission to college!

What’s next?

Besides visiting and comparing wants/needs between programs, the other main concern is financial: How much will it cost, and what is reasonable for your family?

So, how do you compare college costs and navigate financial aid offers?

Step 1: Compare the offers side-by-side.

Build a spreadsheet, so you can see everything in one place. I suggest putting college names across the top, starting in column #2, and the following in column #1, starting in row #2:

  • Tuition + Fees
  • Room + Board
  • Total Cost Without Aid
  • Merit-Based Aid Offered
  • Need-Based Aid Offered
  • Total Aid Offered
  • Adjusted Total Cost (Cost Without Aid – Aid Offered)

Step 2: Know your numbers.

If you have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you have an Expected Family Contribution (EFC).

This factors heavily into where schools start with their aid offers and how much they can/will offer.

In addition, figure out what is financially feasible for your family.

Step 3: Negotiate.

With your own numbers and that spreadsheet in hand, you’re in a good position to ask for a better offer.

And yes, it is possible to negotiate the offer, especially if you are comparing private institutions with other private institutions.

Whom should you contact? The Director of Admission or the assigned Admission Counselor is a great place to start.

Step 4: Decide how to pay the balance.

Most colleges will offer some type of payment plan over 9 -10 months, possibly even 12 months.

There are also loans that parents can borrow on behalf of their students. The Parent PLUS loan can be a great way to invest in college if the cash flow for a payment plan is tight.

Outside scholarship searching is always an option. Schools aren’t the only ones offering money to help pay for college. While fairly time intensive, it can be an ongoing project for a student throughout their college years. Funds earned from outside scholarships can be added to each semester, as they are secured.

Also, in divorce situations, each parent can participate with a loan or payment plan of their own.

Want personalized guidance?

Sharron Starling has recently joined the NWES crew, and she is here to help!

Want to explore this in more depth?

Want help preparing to negotiate?

Want to discuss complicated situations, such as combining payment plans, PLUS loans, and part-time work?

Send us an email to set up a session with Sharron:

About the Author

Sharron Starling oversees and directs all aspects of the admission process for Cornish College of the Arts. A dedicated admission professional with over thirty years of experience, Starling is a frequent presenter in the PNW, has served the region on the PNACAC Executive Board, and is a current elected member of the National Portfolio Day Association Board. She has served as an ex-officio member of the Board for the Washington Association of Art Educators and is the City Representative for the NACAC Seattle Performing and Visual Arts College Fair.

In her role at Cornish, she also serves as the site host for the annual Seattle National Portfolio Day. Presentations at national conferences include HECA, IECA, and NACAC.

She is the parent of two classically trained ballet dancers who have taken that early training into the professions of Lighting Design and Stage Management. A long-time supporter of Billings Middle School and Spruce Street School, she currently serves on the Board of Trustees for Spruce Street School.