Fred Butler, age 106, has received his high school diploma. A grandson, Mike Calabro, said Butler gave him $5 for every A on his report card.

Use the Shopping Sheet to Understand College Costs

Even before some colleges use the sheet in 2013-2014, the template can help students compare their options.

Fred Butler, age 106, has received his high school diploma. A grandson, Mike Calabro, said Butler gave him $5 for every A on his report card.

Fred Butler, age 106, has received his high school diploma. A grandson, Mike Calabro, said Butler gave him $5 for every A on his report card.

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Deciphering and comparing college financial aid award letters can be a tricky task. Parents and students must first understand the differences between financial aid terms like gift aid and self-help aid, grants and loans, and then must look out for ways schools present that information—if it's included in aid awards at all. 

[Avoid these assumptions about college financial aid.]

But a new federal form, the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, aims to add clarity to the decision-making process for students in the 2013-2014 school year and beyond. The standardized template released Tuesday by the Department of Education and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau clearly lays out total costs of attendance, grants and scholarships offered, and net costs (what families will pay after aid is taken into account).

The form also shows students their options to cover those net costs, including any work-study opportunities, federal loans, and school-specific payment plans. 

[Find out how to pay for college.] 

A handful of schools, including the University of Texas system and Vassar College, have already committed to using the voluntary form, which will also include key, school-specific statistics including the six-year graduation rate, the loan default rate, and the median amount students borrow. For students who were accepted to several schools that use the template, comparing financial aid award letters would ostensibly be a much easier task. 

[See why entrepreneur Mark Cuban thinks college is a business decision.] 

"It's a really great format," says Lauren Asher, president of The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) of the Shopping Sheet. "It lays out, clearly, what students and families need to make truly informed decisions." 

Even students accepted to schools that are not yet using the Shopping Sheet can benefit, Asher notes. Using the template as a guide, students can work their way through nonstandardized award letters, picking out key pieces of information that are included, and hunting down others that weren't provided up front. 

[Find out how to compare other financial aid awards.] 

"Right now, colleges are not required to provide the full cost of attendance ... or even to provide the contact information for a financial aid office," Asher says. "Even with blanks in it, students and families can use [the Shopping Sheet] as a guide for the information they should be able to extract from their award letters, and to try to find some of this information [elsewhere]." 

Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.