Ohio State's Executive Director of Financial Aid on Financial Aid Awards: Part One

Different colleges cost different amounts, present their costs in different ways, and offer different amounts of fiancial aid in different combinations. This can make it difficult to understand which combination of price and student aid award is best.Diane Stemper, Executive Director of Financial Aid at The Ohio State University, joins us today for the first of a two-part post on comparing financial aid awards so that students and their families can be wise consumers and better understand what they are being offered and signing on for.

During 30 years as a financial aid director, I have worked at several different colleges and universities, creating and revising award letters at each and every school.  Financial aid offices across the country engage in the same activity, striving to provide a clear message in the financial aid award letter and often approaching it in a slightly different manner.  The result is that letters from different institutions often do not look the same.  How do you understand this land of acronyms and abbreviations?  And more importantly, how do you understand what the cost will be to you and how do you compare this for various institutions as you make your very important college choice decision? 

Basic Definitions:

There are a few basic definitions that will assist you in sorting out the information:

  • Cost of Attendance (COA) is an estimate of your total costs, including estimates for books and supplies, transportation, and personal costs.  It is important in planning because it is an estimate of costs that you will incur, but does not represent the amount you must pay the college.
  • Direct Costs:  Tuition and fees + room and board (if living on campus). These are the amounts you will be billed.  It is important to identify these amounts when trying to evaluate affordability and compare costs.
  • Effective Family Contribution (EFC) is a tool used to evaluate your eligibility for federal, state and institutional aid.  It is not the amount you will be billed – it is merely an estimate of what your family can contribute to the cost.  Don’t panic, because as I said, you will not be billed this amount; it is a tool to determine eligibility and an estimate of what you and your family can contribute to the total estimated cost of attendance.

Types of Aid: 

It is important to understand the types of aid because this determines what is “free” money, what you must work and earn, and what you must repay.










Comparing Aid Offers            

What is the bottom line?You should perform these steps with each of your financial aid awards:

  1. Look at the total cost of attendance – this is the cost you must plan for on an annual basis.
  2. Calculate the total of grants and scholarships (free money).
  3. For each school, subtract any grant and scholarship offers from the total cost.  This will show you the cost of attending each school and help you compare. If you have an outside scholarship, this may further reduce your bill.  However, some colleges will reduce their grant or scholarship aid by the amount of an outside scholarship so it is important to ask about their policies surrounding external scholarships. 
  4. It is helpful to understand the “direct costs” for each institution – this very closely represents what you will be billed (tuition, fees, on-campus room and board).
  5. In addition to the payment to the college, you must plan for all of the other miscellaneous costs listed in the cost of attendance because, even though you can control the amount you spend on some of these items, you will always need money for books, laundry, transportation, and personal items. 
  6. Compare the amount of money you will need to borrow for each institution.

Tomorrow: Diane Stemper returns with advice about what students and their families need to be especially aware of in evaluating aid awards, as well as resources for tools to use in comparing awards.


Diane L. Stemper, Executive Director of Student Financial Aid at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, oversees one of the largest student aid delivery systems in the country, providing approximately $1Billion annually in assistance to over 50,000 students.  Ms. Stemper brings to this position over 25 years of experience in student financial assistance at both private and public institutions, including positions at Arizona State University, Miami University (Ohio), The College of Wooster, and The Pennsylvania State University. As President and CEO of ELM Resources from 2003 – 2006, she led the largest education loan data exchange and disbursement company in the nation.

Ms. Stemper holds a Master of Public Administration from the Pennsylvania State University, and received her BA from Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA.

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