Apples to Apples (or at least Granny Smith to Macintosh): Comparing Aid Award Letters

Note this blog was updated from its original April 2013 publication.

This is the season when our office gets a lot of requests to match aid awards from other Law Schools. But as a need-based institution we can only review or change an aid award if there is a change in financial circumstances which affects need. The existence of an alternative scholarship does not affect need or allow the leveraging of additional YLS funds.

What we will do when you reach out to us with this request is two things. First, we will do a re-review of your Need Access and FAFSA applications to ensure that we have understood your financial situation correctly. We recognize the fact that the data on those forms often does not tell the full story of an applicant (or their parents) and as such it’s helpful to dig a little deeper into what has been reported. Sometime the student has miscalculated what assets they will have available as of September 1st (which is the key number we use in calculating the asset contribution – not the data that reflects the assets you had at the time you completed the application). Or sometimes we will note that the student or parent had a one-time influx of income which is not representative of what their annual income truly is. Again, adjustments to the aid award can be made if we determine that the financial need data should be revised.

Second, we will talk with you about how to look at our aid award in the context of other awards you may have received. We are big believers in the “look before you buy” philosophy. Often we share the following points in how to effectively compare aid awards:

— As previously stated, it’s not possible to do a direct (my apples to apples analogy) comparison of “merit” based awards vs. need based awards because they simply are not done on the same principles.

— With merit-based awards that support tuition only, you want to be conscious, therefore, of how you will then fund your living expenses (and what realistically are those living expenses). If you are borrowing loans to support your personal expenses and living in a high cost city this could be substantial loan debt. Which then leads to the question: is this loan debt borrowed for living costs covered under the institution’s LRAP (Loan Repayment Assistance Program)? Which in turn leads to the larger question of comparing that LRAP to other LRAPs available.

— LRAPS in general have to factor into any aid award comparison as a “back end” scholarship. It’s not just about what you are getting in the initial aid award to fund those three (short) years of law school, it’s also about what support you will receive to assist in the long term repayment of the debt.

— How was the aid award made? At YLS we make it a point to show on the aid award letter the entire progressive calculation: Budget minus Contribution (Student, Parent, Spouse) = Need. Need is first met by unit loan and then by Institutional Scholarship. You can see exactly how we are arriving at bottom line numbers. It’s all very transparent and equitably applied to all students. If you are going to do a direct comparison of aid awards you will need to understand exactly how each element of the award was calculated by each institution.

— The cost of living differential is critical. Many people focus on the tuition and fees in looking at their student budgets. But let’s talk about the importance of the cost of living allotment. The reality is that the cost of living allotment is the only part of the student budget which you can control (you can’t change tuition, fees or health costs or anything else that will be billed from the school) but you can live on less (and more ) that what is budgeted for living. So it’s important to understand how exactly each school calculates the cost of living and if it’s a realistic number. In the case of YLS we conduct a Cost of Living survey annually with all our JD students to assess how much they are actually paying for rent, utilities, internet, phone, food etc. This year (2014-2015) the average monthly cost for all living expenses was $1,631 which at a nine month academic year was an average of $14,679. And we presently budget $17,000 in our 15-16 academic year student budget so we provide a buffer for other expenses. Bottom line — we are pretty confident that the cost of living allotment is accurate and is going to allow you to make out okay here in New Haven.

— Another related issue is evaluating if increased scholarship support is only supporting a higher cost of living. For example, say you received $3,000 more in scholarship support from another institution than YLS but in looking at their Cost of Living allotment in their budget (assuming their budget includes that breakdown) you see that it costs $3,000 more to live there than the YLS New Haven allotment. You really haven’t gained anything in that extra $3,000 because it’s just going to pay for a cost of living differential.

We recognize that deciphering multiple aid awards (all usually looking different, calculated different etc.) is a challenge. We are always willing to talk about how YLS calculates our award.

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