What is a financial aid package?

A financial aid package represents the best efforts of the college or university financial aid office to meet a student's demonstrated need or to offer suggestions for other available aid. Some colleges are able to meet full demonstrated need, but some cannot.

Colleges send an award letter to students, listing programs of aid and amounts available. Financial aid packages generally include a combination of different categories of aid. The package may be adjusted if other resources are awarded to the student.

If a student financial aid package includes loans, be sure to research financing carefully, and don't hesitate to ask a college financial aid officer for advice, says Kathy Ruby. She's the director of financial aid at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.

"Federal loans are always good, but private loans can be expensive. Be sure to read the fine print," she says.

Although student loan debt levels are a topic of concern, Ruby says that student credit card debt is an even more important issue. She strongly suggests that families should be talking about budgeting, saving money from part-time and summer jobs, and the pitfalls of loans and credit cards.

"When students are heading off to college, they're taking their first step toward financial independence," she says. "Conversations about handling money are important to start in high school."