MONEY College

One Easy Fix That Could Make College Financial Aid Simpler and Better

students on Yale campus
Mark Daffey—Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image

Allowing families to use older tax information when applying for financial aid would give them an earlier idea of how much they'll have to pay for college.

Everybody knows you don’t tell the salesman you’ll take the car before you negotiate the price. Now the nation’s college financial aid officers are saying it’s just as dumb for high school seniors to have to pick the colleges they want to apply to before they know how much aid they’ll get.

In a new paper, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators says students and families would be much better off if the federal government allowed them to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) the September their child starts senior year in high school instead of having to wait until January.

Applying for aid earlier would dramatically reduce the anxiety families face during college application season, because they would know how much aid they qualify for—and therefore have a better idea of what schools they could afford—earlier in the application process, NASFAA said. Current students would have more time to plan for the next school year too.

Moving up the deadline would also make filling out the FAFSA form much easier, since most families have filed their taxes by September and thus could use the FAFSA’s IRS Data Retrieval Tool to automatically fill in many fields with financial information from their tax returns. As it stands now, when families start the FAFSA in January they often haven’t even begun preparing their taxes for the prior year, which is the year on which the financial aid forms are based.

The change “stands to revolutionize the FAFSA application process and along with it the effectiveness of financial aid and admissions processes for institutions,” according to the administrators’ association.

The report is significant in that it represents the views of not only financial aid professionals, but also admissions officers, state grant agencies, and college access programs. Even before this paper, the proposal had widespread support. Forty-five organizations, ranging from student associations to major university lobbying groups, signed a memo in December lobbying for it.

So what’s stopping this great idea?

The two usual suspects: politics and money.

Only Congress can move the date that the FAFSA is released from January to September. And Congress hasn’t embraced the idea because lawmakers are afraid it will a lot of cost money, in part because making things easier for students will mean that more students apply for aid.

In a paper earlier this year, Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, estimated costs ranging from $6 billion to $13 billion over 10 years. Kelchen said his estimates are based on financial aid data from nine colleges.

Currently lawmakers are working to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, and proposals to simplify the FAFSA have been a major part of that discussion.

But NASFAA doesn’t think there’s a need to wait. The Department of Education has the authority to change the FAFSA process to let families use older tax information. That wouldn’t change the timeline to apply—applications would still become available in January—but it would make filling them out simpler, since families could use completed tax information. Education Department officials have indicated they support the idea generally but need more information about the cost.

Some experts have expressed concern about basing a student’s financial aid for each fall on their family income of two years prior. For example, a rising high school senior would fill out the FAFSA with information about his family’s income from 2014 in order to qualify for financial aid when he starts college in the fall of 2016. (Washington, D.C., wonks have dubbed the idea “prior-prior year” or PPY).

A layoff or an economic downturn can cause significant and sudden changes in a family’s need for aid that would be missed if the aid application only looks at two-year-old financial circumstances, says Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

“What would have happened if we had PPY in 2008?” Nassirian asks.

“I’m not against it,” Nassirian adds, “I’m just pointing out that it’s not a no-brainer. It has a predictable down side that we should at least talk about.”

NASFAA officials, however, say aid offices can handle appeals based on sudden changes, known as “professional judgment reviews,” especially if the timeline is moved up to give offices more time to process applications.

Megan McClean, director of policy and federal relations at NASFAA, notes that in a previous study, the organization looked at financial information of Pell Grant recipients between 2007 and 2012, and even with the recession, it found minimal fluctuations in income over two-year periods.

Even then, Nassirian describes it as an “operational failure” to use old data instead of current income information. The amount a family should be able to contribute to college costs is determined by income, assets, household size and number of children in college. Most of that information is already collected every year by the federal government, and can be easily accessed and transferred with today’s technology.

A real solution, Nassirian says, would be eliminating the FAFSA altogether. Instead, he says, people could use their tax return as their financial aid application.

Read next: 7 Legal Ways to Squeeze More College Aid From the FAFSA

TIME Innovation

How a Little Bribery Could Be a Good Thing

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. A little bribery might actually be a good thing.

By Jan Hanousek and Anna Kochanova at the Centre for Economic Policy Research

2. Remember the rover that was supposed to last three months on Mars? It just logged day 4,000.

By A. J. S. Rayl at the Planetary Society

3. What if there was a step between renting and owning?

By Brett Theodos and Rob Pitingolo at the Urban Institute

4. Here’s the unexpected reason college tuition has skyrocketed.

By Paul F. Campos in the New York Times

5. Are small businesses being overlooked in the fight against poverty?

By Randall Kempner in the Guardian

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Living

20 Things Nobody Tells You When You Graduate College

Take a crazy job, don't stress about money — and Drake was right

I have never been invited to give a commencement address at a college. This is disappointing because, for the first time in my life, I own a sports coat that fits and a belt that is not two-sided.

I might be considered too young, as I am only 39, despite the gray hair I’ve acquired that prompted a TSA agent to recently proclaim, “You sure that’s you?” upon seeing my dark-haired driver’s license.

But I have spent 17 years in the workforce. I’ve worked at big companies and small ones. I’ve been promoted and fired. I’ve started my own business. I found and left my dream job. I’ve learned a lot, mostly the wrong way (and would prefer you didn’t). So before you throw your cap in the air — or at least before you stage an Instagram photo of you throwing your cap in the air — allow me to share some things nobody will tell you.

 

  1. The real world is more fun than grumpy adults have ever told you.

Don’t listen to people in their 40s who act like the best part of your life ends the minute you get your diploma. Is the real world all cotton candy and unicorn rides? No. But sometimes, misery loves company and recruits it too. When you start a new job there will inevitably be a group of people there who don’t like their job and don’t like being an adult. Avoid these people like the plague. They’ve bought into the cultural lie that a “job is just a job” and that you should only work for the weekend. Nonsense. Your job can be meaningful. Your weekdays can matter.

  1. One of your friends will be instantly successful.

They will move to New York or San Francisco and make finding a great job seem easy. They will earn the kind of money that allows you to pay for your own HBOGo pass instead of stealing your parents’. You will hate them at least a little bit because watching their meteoric rise through the filtered window of social media will make you feel like it will never happen for you. Don’t get caught in the trap of comparison.

  1. Your first job might not involve your major in a major way.

That’s only a minor problem though. You have 40 years to reunite your job with your major — or to find out your major may not have major bearing on what you do in life.

  1. Your 20s are lonelier than you think they’ll be.

They’re glamorized in culture, presented as the time of your life. As you bingewatch an entire season of House of Cards on Netflix, you will wonder, Is every other person my age at an amazing party right now that I didn’t know about? They’re not. The truth is, when you leave college, you leave the tightest, largest concentration of people who are your age. Suddenly, you’re scattered around the country and community won’t involve walking out onto the quad. You’ll have to fight for it. That’s not failure, that’s reality. Seek it out. It’s not easy to make friends as an adult but it’s definitely possible if you’ll be brave.

  1. Being an adult comes with an obscene amount of paperwork.

Stay on top of it. Taxes, 401K enrollment, healthcare, apartment contracts… Prepare to be awash in forms that make the Apple iTunes agreement seem pleasant. Don’t ignore the paperwork. I once did and assumed the company I worked for would handle a healthcare issue I had. (I thought I had kidney stones; turns out it was just an ultimate Frisbee injury. What an adult I was!) I threw the paperwork in the trash. I didn’t think anything of it until years later when a collection agency came after me for $81 and my credit was garbage.

  1. Your generation gets unfairly labeled for entitlement. Don’t accept that.

Be humble at work. Show up with questions and a willingness to learn. Don’t act like you know everything already. You don’t, but you know what? Neither do we. People my age and the generations older than I am are a little afraid of you sometimes. We’re scared of the technologies you might know about that we’ve never even heard of. We don’t want to look dumb when we ask, “What is YikYak?” The truth is, we need you, just like you need us.

  1. Pay attention in meetings.

Roughly 93% of your job depends on your ability to do this. You might have been able to tune out in a class of 400 people for an hour but if you try that in a meeting at work, people are going to notice. Don’t text under the table with your phone either. We can see you.

  1. Treat email like it matters.

The other 7% of your job will be managing email. I sure wish it wasn’t because I hate email. (In fact, if you want to give me feedback about this article, just tweet me @JonAcuff instead. Feel free to say, “@JonAcuff your commencement tips are awesome/suck” depending on how you think it’s going.) You have to communicate clearly in your emails. You need to respond to your managers and coworkers quickly. You need to stay out of stupid passive-aggressive traps, like CCing someone’s superior, as a veiled threat. Work your inbox like it’s your job. Because it is.

  1. Take risks.

You don’t have mortgages or kids or other responsibilities yet. Want to go abroad for a year and make a micro-salary teaching English? Want to start a business specializing in a heritage breed of rabbits for hipsters who are tired of suburban chickens already? Go for it. What’s the worst that can happen? You try it for a year, it fails and now you’re 23. You’ve got the rest of your life to play it safe.

  1. Don’t put off your college loans.

The 9,000-pound elephant/gorilla/large scary animal in the corner is your student loans. Sallie Mae doesn’t mess around. Ignoring that you owe money doesn’t make the loans go away. Paying them back does.

  1. Hold your money with an open hand.

Money is a something that pretends to be an Everything. It’s perfectly fine to take a job for a few years just to pay the bills and get by. There’s nobility in that. As your career progresses though, be careful that you don’t chase money at the exclusion of everything else. The amount of cash that will make you perfectly happy is always a “little more.” It’s a never-ending chase that has hollowed out many a 40-year-old.

  1. If you move home, make sure you bring an exit strategy with you.

Pay rent to your parents. Do your own laundry. Buy your own food. Have a deadline for how long you’re going to stay there. Home is comfortable but the distance between comfortable and complacent is surprisingly short. Just because you’re sleeping in the same room you had in middle school doesn’t mean you have to act like an adolescent. And if anyone tries to make you feel ashamed to be living at home with your parents, don’t listen to them.

  1. Don’t spend all your time with idiots and then wonder why it’s hard to meet someone great to date.

If you moved to the desert and then told me the kayaking there is terrible, I would agree. Then I’d ask why you expected sand dunes to offer optimal water sports. “Become the kind of person you want to be with” might be clichéd advice best suited to Hallmark cards, but “Go where the people you want to be like are” isn’t.

  1. Don’t ask to work from home the first week of your new job.

Though more companies are offering that option, it’s still a privilege, not a right.

  1. Jump into the wild west of side jobs.

The days of having the same job for 40 years and then getting a gold watch when you retire are over. Hooray! Your job won’t be limited or defined by geography. The Internet has leveled the playing field. Anyone can connect with anyone. You don’t need a physical storefront or even a physical product to start a business. Your ability to make money will only be limited by your ability to hustle.

  1. Figure out which part of your career needs the most work.

The best careers and biggest adventures are determined by our ability to invest in four distinct things: Relationships, Skills, Character and Hustle.

  1. Don’t become a dinosaur.

Just because your formal education might have ended doesn’t mean you should stop learning. If you don’t keep old skills sharp and continue learning new ones your career will become obsolete.

  1. Don’t burn many bridges.

Every industry is smaller than you think. Do your best to leave as many relationships intact at every job you have. Chances are, you’ll work with a lot of the same people again during your career.

19. Put your phone down when you’re talking to someone.

Nothing says “this job doesn’t matter to me” like staring into your phone when you’re having a face-to-face conversation with a coworker. Want a simple way to build the kind of character that will serve you for a lifetime? Ignore your phone instead of the people you’re with.

  1. Drake was right.

You are going to start at the bottom. That’s OK. Put your pride aside and recognize this as a starting point. This isn’t your final job, it’s your first job. You’ve got one foot on the ladder and now you get to climb it. Give yourself time and be patient.

Welcome to the real world, where people who are almost 40 reference Drake in a thinly veiled attempt to seem hip. I’m not. I need you to teach me about what’s coming next. So does everyone else.

Congratulations on finishing college.

Congratulations on joining the real world.

We’ve been waiting for you.

 

Jon Acuff is the author of five books, including the recent Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work & Never Get Stuck, which focuses on building a long-lasting career by investing in a “Career Savings Account.”

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

MONEY College

The 20 Best Colleges You Can Still Get Into for the Fall

Washington & Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania
Mark Summerfield—Alamy Washington & Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania

Some great colleges are still accepting students who can apply quickly and aren't expecting lots of financial aid.

The Class of 2019 will descend on college campuses for the start of fall classes in just over three months. But for students who are uncertain of their plans, it’s not too late to apply to several quality schools.

More than 220 colleges have space for freshman or transfer students for the upcoming fall semester, according to the annual College Openings Update published today by the National Association for College Admission Counseling.

The list is released following the May 1 national response deadline, when many institutions require deposits from students who have been offered acceptance. After tallying the numbers to see whether they met enrollment goals, colleges with space available can volunteer to be included on the counseling association’s list. It’s available online until June 30.

Many of the colleges willing to accept late applications are some of the best schools in the country.

Reed College, an elite private liberal arts college in Oregon, has an especially good track record of helping its graduates move into top graduate schools. (Reed isn’t included in MONEY’s rankings of the best value colleges because it declines to provide sufficient data.)

Here are 20 colleges MONEY ranks as excellent values that are still accepting applications.

College State Public or private? Money Best Colleges rank Graduation rate PayScale.com avg. early career earnings
University of Washington Bothell WA Public 37 64% $52,100
Holy Family University PA Private 68 62% $49,400
Oregon Institute of Technology OR Public 76 48% $57,000
Michigan Technological University MI Public 82 66% $59,200
Illinois Institute of Technology IL Private 92 68% $55,000
University of Arizona AZ Public 99 61% $48,400
Wheaton College MA Private 101 90% $42,400
New College of Florida FL Public 134 69% $39,800
DePauw University IN Private 134 78% $46,600
University of Northern Iowa IA Public 138 66% $40,600
Washington State University WA Public 138 67% $45,900
Loyola University Maryland MD Private 138 84% $51,000
William Jewell College MO Private 156 69% $45,700
Union College KY Private 166 83% $49,000
Saint Joseph’s University PA Private 169 79% $49,300
University of Toledo OH Public 173 46% $44,900
Ursuline College OH Private 173 52% $50,900
Rockhurst University MO Private 177 69% $49,000
The University of Tulsa OK Private 194 66% $55,000
Wagner College NY Private 208 66% $48,200

May 1 is an important date in terms of planning for colleges and families, enrollment experts say. But just five years ago, the response deadline was much more absolute than it is now, says Sarah Coen, senior vice president at Ruffalo Noel Levitz, an enrollment consulting firm.

The shift is partially due to increased pressure on college enrollment teams in regions, such as the Northeast, where the number of high school graduates is flat or declining, Coen says. Competition for students, especially at tuition-dependent private colleges, is fierce.

That’s good news for families who haven’t solidified college plans, because it means a lot of decent colleges still actively seeking students.

Private institutions make up about 65% of the list, but there are also some large, flagship state universities that are still accepting applications, such as the University of Arizona, University of Oregon, and University of Florida. There are colleges in 42 states and the District of Columbia.

Washington & Jefferson College in Pennsylvania has been on the list for six of the past seven years. The 1,400-student private university has about 10 to 20 spots left to fill and can offer both financial aid and housing, says vice president of enrollment Robert Gould.

Students thinking about applying to a college in late May or June should be sure they take all the traditional steps to vet a college, including campus visits if possible, Gould says. But because of the late time, families also should be prepared to move fast. What’s generally an 18-month timeline will need to be whittled down to a matter of weeks or even days. And getting required items, such as transcripts or letters of recommendation, can be more challenging over the summer months.

Because of those demands, Washington & Jefferson’s admissions director works individually with late-applying students. “You’re really condensing a lot, and any school that isn’t willing to give them that attention in a concentrated fashion probably isn’t going to be the best option for a family,” Gould says.

Most of the colleges on the list have spots in on-campus housing available, and all but four colleges said they have financial aid available.

Much of the list is made up of colleges with rolling admissions policies, meaning they accept students at any time until their class is filled. Likewise, they usually hand out financial aid until it’s gone, says Peter Van Buskirk, a former dean of admissions and author of Winning the College Admissions Game: Strategies for Parents & Students.

So even if a college says it has financial aid available, families may find that the package offered for next year is light on grants and scholarships and heavy on loans and work study, Van Buskirk says. “Those who arrive late to the game are most likely to get what’s left over,” he adds.

The federal deadline for the free application for federal student aid (FAFSA) for aid for the fall semester isn’t until June 30, 2016, but at least 12 states have deadlines earlier this spring, according to Edvisors.com, which offers advice on college financial aid. Coen, the enrollment consultant, recommends families apply for FAFSA as soon as possible no matter what their state deadline is.

Keep in mind that this list of colleges still accepting students isn’t exhaustive. In addition to being voluntary, it’s comprised only of the 1,300 four-year colleges that are members of the counseling association. Community colleges—which accept students year-round—are largely excluded from the list.

And even if an institution isn’t included, that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t be receptive to late applicants. Coen says that if students are interested in a certain college, they should contact the admissions office regardless of whether the college is advertising open space.

College admissions is a buyers market right now, she says.“If you’re a student they want for whatever reason, they’re going to do what they can to get you.”

See all of Money’s Best Colleges

MONEY job search

6 Tips for Landing a Last-Minute Summer Internship

150504_CAR_SummerIntern
Eric Audras—Getty Images

Haven't started looking for an internship yet? These strategies will help you catch up in a hurry.

Summer is nearly here, and college students (along with some particularly ambitious high schoolers) who don’t already have plans are scrambling to snag a last-minute internship.

The reality is that by the time May comes around, many student-friendly jobs are already taken. “Organizations have been recruiting all year for internships,” says Philip D. Gardner, director of the College Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University.

Still, Gardner says, students who haven’t yet secured a spot shouldn’t give up hope. The internship market may not be as robust as it was in February, he tells MONEY, “but with some diligence, students should find them.”

Diligence, that is, combined with some smart searching skills. Keep these five tips in mind while on the hunt for the perfect summer job:

1. Ask the right questions

Summer positions aren’t beneficial for their own sake. The point of an internship is to give students real work experience that will eventually lead to a job in their chosen field, or help them decide whether that field is really where they want to work after graduation. So even last-minute job seekers shouldn’t leap at the first offer.

“Some offices offer internships to people trying to get cheap labor,” Gardner says. Students who coasted into positions with family friends or took the first offer “got an internship to put on their resume, but it didn’t get them where they wanted to go.”

According to Gardner, the key to finding a really useful internship is asking the right questions:

  • “What professional outcomes am I going to be able to obtain from this internship?”
  • “Will this allow me to develop teamwork skills or apply learning to problem-solving in this area?”
  • “Will I be able to obtain a good overview of potential careers in your organization, or have a chance to experience some of the basic fundamental responsibilities in this organization?”

Each industry has its own nuances that demand a unique set of queries, so Gardner advises students to talk to their college’s career services center to learn what they should be asking when meeting with potential employers. Plus, showing hiring managers that you’ve done some homework and are eager to learn about their field can only help your chances, especially at this late date.

2. Know where to look

It’s not enough to use the basic set of job search sites, like CareerSearch and O*Net, when hunting for an internship. Many industries also have their own niche job boards where positions that don’t appear elsewhere are posted. Check with your college’s career office, which often has knowledge of industry-specific job listings and connections with a variety of employers. He also recommends talking with professors, who might have tips on internships in their areas of expertise.

3. Give your resume a quick makeover

Hiring managers depend on your resume and cover letter when deciding who to interview for open positions, so it’s important to make sure yours is as perfect as it can be before you start sending out queries. Since time is of the essence, the fastest way to get your resume into shape is to solicit professional help.

Gardner recommends making an immediate appointment with one of your school’s career counselors. They’re a one-stop-shop for general advice—like what fonts to use, how much space each item deserves—and industry specific guidance, such as which achievements to highlight and which to leave out.

4. Become an interview expert

While a writing a good resume is essential, it’s difficult for any undergraduate to get a job based on solely on their past accomplishments. Students in their late teens or early 20s understandably tend to lack extensive work histories, meaning employers are usually going to value attitude and temperament over experience.

“Young people are going to be hired more often on personality traits than on knowledge or skills,” says Carol Christen, co-author of What Color Is Your Parachute? For Teens, a career guide for young people. “Are you willing to show up on time? Are you willing to ask questions?”

According to Christen, interviews are the primary way to show employers you have the right personality for the position. Moreover, she says, it can take as many as nine interviews for students to get comfortable, making practice essential.

How does one get interview practice before actually interviewing for a job? Mock interviews with college career counselors are one option, but a more time-efficient idea, championed by Christen, is to ask people already employed in your field for an informational interview.

Reach out to people and request a brief chat about their day-to-day responsibilities, how they got their job, and other inside knowledge. These discussions won’t give you experience talking about your own accomplishments, but Christen says they should help build confidence, develop connections, and teach students how to hold a conversation entirely around work.

5. Design your own internship

If your applications go unanswered, don’t give up. Look into volunteering at a nonprofit organization or political campaign in an area that will give you some exposure to career skills. Another option is to design an independent project that could be useful to a business or nonprofit—such as doing market research or looking into various fundraising options—and then ask if anyone on staff will “sponsor” the program by acting as a supervisor or mentor.

6. Next time, get started sooner

It’s possible to get a summer job if you start searching in May, but waiting this long is far from ideal. In the future, Gardner recommends, start looking for an internship as soon as you get back from summer break. He says underclassmen should start particularly early since recruiters tend to hit campuses in the fall and early winter. Getting a head start on the process not only means a higher chance of landing an internship, it also means you’ll have more options to pick from when deciding which position fits you best.

Read next: How to convert a summer internship into a full-time job

MONEY College

Free Ride: Fiat Chrysler Sending Dealership Workers to (for-Profit) College

The automaker will cover tuition at the for-profit, on- and offline Strayer University.

MONEY College

How Parents Feel About Affording College: Pick a Synonym for Scared

Survey finds most parents fail to put their college savings in investments that can keep up with tuition.

How do parents feel about saving for college? How many different words are there for anxious?

In a survey of 1,988 parents released today, the majority of parents described saving for college with words like “worried,” “frustrated,” and “overwhelmed.”

In the 2015 “How America Saves for College” report from Upromise by Sallie Mae, parents reported saving less for everything—including college—in 2014 than they did in 2013. The reason cited by most (61%): they just don’t have enough money left over at the end of the month.

The average annual amount put aside for college in 2014 fell to $2,566 from $3,016 in 2013. The average accumulated college savings also declined, to $10,040 from $13,408.

That said, the survey found that parents are still putting a high priority on their children’s education, continuing to earmark around 10% of their savings for college. But along with saving fewer actual dollars, many are putting what money they have in low-paying investments that will likely lag tuition inflation. Nearly a quarter said they were saving in their checking accounts, and 15% said they were socking away college money in CDs, both of which currently pay almost no interest.

Fewer than 30% of parents said they used tax-advantaged 529 college savings plans; worse still, fully 52% of those surveyed said they’d never heard of a 529 plan and thus didn’t know that they could put money aside for college and let it grow tax-free, and might even get get a state tax break on their contributions to their kids’ accounts.

Not surprisingly, parents with low and moderate incomes reported being the most worried. But even parents earning more than $100,000 a year, who were the biggest savers, were still plenty fretful. Only 30% of the wealthy described themselves as “confident” in their ability to pay for college.

The wealthy were the most likely to take advantage of the tax benefits provided by 529s: Almost half of families earning more than $100,000 reported using a 529 plan, compared with 20% of those earning between $35,000 and $100,000 and 17% of those earning less than $35,000. (For help feeling a little less anxious, here’s advice on choosing the best 529 plan for you.)

image (7)
MONEY College

5 Expensive College Financial Aid Gotchas

A financial aid letter might look generous but actually come with costly caveats.

It’s crunch time for high school seniors: May 1 is College Decision Day, the day most college-bound students will let universities and colleges know whether they will be enrolling. For students agonizing over multiple offers, a big factor in choices will (or should be) financial aid. After all, the less you borrow as a student, the less student loan debt you’ll have to repay after college.

But those financial aid letters students have received can be confusing at best, and downright deceptive at worst. One parent told me about the worst one her daughter received: “It showed the parents’ out-of-pocket cost after the small award, plus the maximum federal student loan, plus a big Parent PLUS loan … and it looked so reasonable,” she said. Her daughter didn’t fully understand that it would mean a big chunk of debt for both the parents and the student to repay after college.

When reviewing financial aid offers, here are five student aid gotchas to watch out for:

1. Loans in Disguise

Financial aid awards will often lump loans together with grants and scholarships and sometimes may not even use the word “loan” to describe money that will be borrowed. But a loan is a much different animal than grants and scholarships that don’t have to be repaid. “When I hear colleges talk about how loans make school more affordable, it’s misleading,” says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president Edvisors.com, which offers free tools to help plan and pay for college. “Loans really provide cash-flow assistance,” he explains. It’s not free money, even if it feels that way. “In most cases loans increase costs because they charge interest,” he says.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a higher education expert who teaches parents how to cut the cost of college at TheCollegeSolution.com, is especially concerned about parent loans listed as aid. “They’ll stuff a big Parent PLUS loan in there, but they shouldn’t even be in financial aid letters,” she insists. Interest rates are high, and any parent can apply for one. “Be careful if a big chunk of your award letter is a Parent PLUS loan,” she says.

2. Front-Loaded Grants

Grants and scholarships may make the first year look affordable, but that equation can change in subsequent years. How do you know if a school “front-loads” grants? It can be hard to tell, admits Kantrowitz. One approach is to ask the financial aid administrator what will be required to renew the awards in subsequent years. He also suggests using the government’s College Navigator website which lists average grants for the first year and all other years for each school. “It’s not perfect,” he says. But if you see a substantial decrease after the first year, that can be a red flag.

3. Missing Costs

If you simply compare tuition costs, you’ll likely be missing some key items, including room and board, meal plans, travel, books and “other” fees (a category that can rival a cellphone or cable bill in the number of add-ons). Be sure essential costs are listed and try to make sure they are realistic, Kantrowitz warns. “Some have a textbook allowance of $250 and in some courses a single textbook can be $250,” he says. When aid letters don’t list the total cost of attending that institution, awards may seem more generous than they really are.

4. Missing Expected Family Contribution

Your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) is basically a proxy for how much a family is expected to pay, at a minimum, for one year of college and it’s generated when a student fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE (which many private schools use). Just as you don’t have a single credit score, you’re likely to end up with multiple EFCs for private colleges. “Every school that uses the PROFILE can create its own EFC because there are hundreds of questions they can add,” says O’Shaughnessy.

If the EFC is not on your award letter, ask the school what number it is using. “Schools just don’t like to tell people what their EFC is because parents would then be able to tell if the financial aid package is a good deal,” O’Shaughnessy says. She gives the example of a student who is awarded $25,000 in grants. On the surface that may appear like a generous award, but if the total costs are $50,000 and the family’s EFC is $5,000, it’s not. (What that would mean is the gap between what was owed each year and what the family would need to pay would be $25,000 per year — for a family whose realistic ability to contribute is closer to $5,000 per year.)

5. Missing Bottom Line

The net price is the cost of attendance minus any grants you get from any sources. Some aid awards will list the true net price, but others will throw in loans. “You need to know how much you will pay after all the free money is deducted,” says O’Shaughnessy. It’s also possible to appeal a financial aid award if you think it’s too low or if your circumstances have changed since you filled out the FAFSA.

If you end up incurring large amounts of debt to pay for school, it can be difficult and painful to dig out. If you have a high monthly payment or you’ve fallen behind, student loan debt can make it difficult to get a mortgage or other lines of credit. You can see how student loans are affecting your credit by checking your credit scores, which you can do for free on Credit.com.

So read those letters carefully and if the true cost isn’t clear, don’t be afraid to ask questions. After all, this is your future you’re looking at — in more ways than one.

More from Credit.com

This article originally appeared on Credit.com.

TIME Innovation

What Happens After Assad

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

These are today's best ideas

1. Assad might be on his way out. But things will get worse before they get better.

By Walter Russell Mead in the American Interest

2. You could rent a Tesla battery to power your house during a blackout.

By Benjamin Preston in the Guardian

3. It’s really going to happen: A Greek exit from the Euro is almost inevitable.

By the Economist

4. Inmates are having burner phones and marijuana delivered by drones.

By Michael S. Schmidt in the New York Times

5. Can we reinvent elite education at half the cost?

By Jeff Selingo at LinkedIn

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

Your browser is out of date. Please update your browser at http://update.microsoft.com