7 On Your Side: Consumer Reports explores options for paying for college

May 1 is the deadline for many high school seniors to put in a deposit for their college choice.

A key in making that decision is the school's financial aid package as decisions made now can impact the student and family for decades.

High school senior Fiona Quinn is fortunate to have several college acceptances from both public and private schools.

After comparing their financial aid packages, she picked a state school.

"The tuition was a huge factor in my decision," she said.

The financial aid offer letter is key to making the college decision. First, check what's being offered in grants and scholarships, which don't need to be paid back. And a word of caution: the letter often only covers the first year.

"Contact the financial aid office and ask questions like, is a grant renewable? Does a scholarship require a certain GPA for it to continue into another year?," suggested Donna Rosata, the Money Editor at Consumer Reports.

The letter also details how much money you can get in federal loans. For the rest, you may have to look to private loans, which you borrow from a traditional lender.

"You want to make sure you start with federal loans. They have a lot of advantages over private loans. They have fixed interest rates, also more flexible repayment options," said Rosata.

Also, check whether the federal loans are subsidized. Those are preferable because you're not responsible for any interest that accrues until you leave school.

There's a helpful tool where you can compare costs and financial aid at each of the schools you're considering, at ConsumerFinance.gov.

Like many students, Quinn found figuring out how to pay for college has been an eye-opener.

"There's no class on loans in high school. I have no perception of, like, how much in debt I'm going to be," said Quinn.

Occasionally, it can be worth negotiating with a school for a better financial aid package, especially if your family's circumstances have recently changed because of events like a job loss or a divorce.

Consumer Reports is published by Consumers Union. Both Consumer Reports and Consumers Union are not-for-profit organizations that accept no advertising. Neither has any commercial relationship with any advertiser or sponsor on this site.

(All Consumer Reports Material Copyright 2014. Consumers Union of U.S. Inc. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.)
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