Hiding Between the Lines in the Award Letter

award letter

It’s financial aid award season. Students and parents have either received or will soon receive the award from the colleges that offered admission. How will this aid factor in to your student’s final decision?

But lurking between the lines in these award letters are some practices colleges use when offering admission and financial aid. Colleges will either lure students to accept their offer of admission, or discourage those students who were only offered admission to fill their quotas and inflate their numbers.

Front Loading

Front loading happens when colleges make their most generous financial aid award offers to applicants as a lure to attend. When students return the following year they may find their school has dropped their previously awarded grants and scholarships. Thousands of dollars may have been lost to the common practice of front loading, so ask these 5 questions:

  • Is the grant/scholarship renewable and if so for how many years? What you want is the money to continue until the student graduates. Bear in mind it is taking longer, four to six years, for those who graduate to do so. Find out the maximum number of times the award will be made.
  • What are the strings attached to keeping the grant/scholarship? It’s important to understand the terms of receiving free money awards before acceptance to make sure the student can and will perform them. He may have to keep his grades up, play an instrument, or be a member on a team. Find out the eligibility requirements each year including any additional paperwork necessary to keep them.
  • If the grant/scholarship is lost, what will replace it? Often student loans are the college’s substitution plan. However, there may be other grants/scholarships available. Ask about them and the application process. Be prepared to continue searching for these and have a college finance Plan B.
  • Will the college bill increase in following years and if so, by how much? Those renewable grants/scholarships may no longer cover the same portion of college costs if tuition rises. See what if any cost components like tuition/fees and room/board are capped or held at the freshmen level.
  • Will the grant/scholarship be increased to keep pace with any raised college costs? Be aware most colleges will not match tuition increases or increase free money aid when tuition rates increase. However, the college bill must continue to be paid.


In admissions, college gapping is a term used in reference to colleges and financial aid awards. The gap between what you can afford to pay (your EFC) and what colleges offer in aid creates this gap. Gapping happens when a college makes an offer of admission and doesn’t back it up with financial aid. Quite simply, the college doesn’t offer enough aid to cover the difference between the cost of the college attendance and your expected family contribution.

Gapping is a serious business. Colleges use the tactic to “weed out” the good applicants from the average applicants. Quite simply, if your student is at the top of their applicant pool, they will receive the aid required to attend. If not, your student will be gapped, in the hopes they will reject the offer of admission.

It’s a numbers game. Colleges offer admission to more students than they can possibly accommodate. Gapping helps them lessen the number of students who accept those offers of admission.

Padding the Award

Colleges will pad the EFC numbers with federal student loans, federal parent loans and work-study. These should NOT be considered when determining if the college is gapping your student. All students qualify for federal student loans. College aid should only be in the form of merit scholarships and grants. If the difference between what you can afford and what the college offers is padded with loans, the college is gapping your student.

The lesson for parents and their college-bound students is to carefully scrutinize, analyze and question each item in their financial aid awards before bothering to compare one college’s offer to another. It may turn out that freshman year is a best deal at one place but if the total years until graduation are tallied, another choice may be the better bargain. 

If the college is gapping your student it’s you and your student’s decision on whether or not to accept the offer of admission. If you want my advice–move on to the 2nd, 3rd or even 4th choice college with the good financial aid package. You will not only save a bundle, but your student will most likely be happier at a college that values his or her contribution.

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4 Responses to “Hiding Between the Lines in the Award Letter”

  1. Hi Suzanne,

    Without any doubt you are clears so many doubts in this article and i hope like me numbers of students will share this knowledge with their class mates as well.

    Once again Thanks!

  2. Thank You for the post. 🙂

  3. I agree that students must be clear about the package and financial aid which will be provided to them from school so they can also know about the affordability of that college.

  4. Another awesome post, thanks so much.