THE HELP DESK The Help Desk: Top Tips

Get the best college financial aid

Gerri Willis helps you navigate the tricky path of financing a college degree.

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By Gerri Willis, CNN personal finance editor

For more information on managing your largest investment, check out Gerri Willis' 'Home Rich,' now in bookstores.

NEW YORK ( -- Many students are now receiving their college acceptance letters and with that comes offers of financial aid. Here's how to compare your financial aid offers.

Getting the true cost of college can be a daunting task because comparing offers can be like comparing apples to oranges. Different colleges will have their figures and costs in different formats.

What you want to look for first is the "Expected Family Contribution." That's the bottom line - the amount of money your family will be expected to contribute.

Only you can judge whether you can afford this amount. But some colleges will include loans in your total financial aid package.

To get the true cost of any school, subtract out any loans from the financial aid package. Remember, these loans must be repaid says Kalman Chany of Campus Consultants.

Consider the cost of tuition and fees, out of pocket expenses like books and room and board and transportation. You can find calculators at the and to compare offers.

1. What to look for

Here's what you'll need to layout side-by-side:

First, look at the specifics of loan offer -- like interest rates and repayment terms. These provisions can vary widely from loan to loan.

Next, you'll want to analyze affordability over time. Make sure you ask how your financial aid package will change over time. The aid offered in the senior year may look very different from what was offered for the freshman year.

And finally, look at the cost of attendance. Make sure you're looking at the big picture, including the cost of health care and transportation.

Generally speaking, you'll want to accept grants and scholarships first -- that's free money. Then accept the loans that are interest free while you're in school, like the Perkins or the Subsidized Stafford loan or any work-study. Take the Unsubsidized Stafford and lastly -- only if you have to -- consider private student loans says Chany.

2. Get more aid

Your financial aid package isn't set in stone.

You can always ask for an appeal. It's called a professional judgment review says Mark Kantrowitz of

If something changed in your finances, like you lost your job or you overstated your income when filing the FAFSA, you have the right to determine whether to give you more aid.

Experts recommend not going to the financial aid office in person since it's harder to negotiate, but rather writing a letter or phoning the financial aid office.  To top of page

Gerri's Mailbox: Got questions about your money? We want to hear them! Send an e-mail,we'll answer questions on CNN, Headline News and

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