Evaluating a financial-aid offer, like buying a car or life insurance, can be a confusing process. There are lots of ways a school can present an offer, and figuring out which...

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Evaluating a financial-aid offer, like buying a car or life insurance, can be a confusing process. There are lots of ways a school can present an offer, and figuring out which is the best deal isn’t easy.

And, as sociologist Robert D. Manning found in research for a recent book on students and debt, some schools are not above a kind of bait-and-switch with aid recipients. Such schools offer generous packages to incoming freshmen but scale them back in subsequent years, figuring that most students will struggle through rather than transfer.

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Manning found this to be a factor in the heavy credit-card debts some students incur.

“The good message is that colleges are now pursuing physicists with the same ardor that they pursue football players,” said Jim Miller, dean of admissions and financial aid at Bowdoin College in Maine. “The bad news is, from a financial-aid perspective, it’s the wild, wild west out there.”

To try to help students work their way through this thicket, Miller, who was formerly head of student aid at Harvard, has composed a list of 10 questions they should ask:

• Are there strings attached to my scholarship or grant? For example, do I have to maintain a certain grade-point average, major in a specific field or take a certain number of credits? If I take time off, do I lose my scholarship or grant?

“Conditions are important for kids to know,” Miller said. “I have seen kids who didn’t know they had to maintain [a] 3.5 average to keep their scholarship.” Likewise, some deals may require you to major in, say, engineering, and may be revoked if you change fields.

• What should I expect to happen to my aid package after the first year?

Most schools don’t deliberately cut back, but they may make other changes, such as boosting the ratio of loans to grants, Miller said. The federal student loan limits rise for upperclassmen, and the school may expect you to borrow more. If something like that is going to happen, you should know, he said.

• Is my aid package based on all of my costs (including travel, books and supplies), or just my billed expenses (tuition, room, board, fees)? What can I expect to spend for college next year, including billed and unbilled expenses, after subtracting my financial aid?

When you are comparing two aid packages, “it’s important to compare apples to apples, and the apples you want to compare are the total cost you pay to go to college,” Miller said. A school should be able to give you a pretty good idea of what the overall cost is going to be, he said.

• How much will I be expected to borrow next year? How much will I be asked to borrow over my college career?

Aid consists of grants (straight cost reductions), loans and jobs. While a few of the wealthiest colleges are now shifting entirely to grants, most schools employ all three. Make sure you understand what your package is.

• What happens if my family’s financial circumstances change? Will you be able to provide me with more aid if my family’s finances worsen or more family members go to college? Will you reduce aid if our circumstances get better?

This is particularly important if there is a real likelihood of some change — for example, if one of the parents might lose a job. Miller said schools are unlikely to give you a specific promise but they can give you an indication of how they would deal with such a situation.

Also, he said, some schools say that if you are not a candidate for aid when you first apply, you can never get any. “Others say, ‘Come talk to us anytime,’ ” he said.

• If I win a scholarship from an outside organization such as my church or school, does it change my aid award?

Schools “used to be much more draconian” about subtracting scholarships, Miller said, but now “the trend is to be much more generous if kids get them.” Still, policies are “all over the lot,” so students should ask.

• My parents need to spread payments for college out over a longer period of time. How can they do that? Do you have programs available through the school that we can use?

People tend to think of tuition as something you pay immediately, but “some schools have payment options or their own parent loan programs.” A fair number of families are totally unaware of this possibility, Miller said.

• I’ve been given a job in my aid package. How do I get a job on campus, and how many hours will I need to or be able to work?

If the school expects you to work, it’s really important to get this nailed down. “Most schools have a job component in their aid package. Some are realistic and some are pretty tough,” Miller said. Does the school find you a job or are you on your own? Is the job requirement in hours or dollars? What can you expect to be paid? Working many hours at a low-paying job can be very rough on academic performance.

• Are there scholarships and loan programs at your school I haven’t applied for, but may qualify for if I do apply?

“It’s just worth asking. A lot of schools have these funny little things you may not know about,” Miller said, or there may be scholarships you can qualify for after you have been there a year or two.

• Do you have the answers to most of my questions in more detailed, written form?

Not to say you can’t trust your college, but getting it in writing helps avoid misunderstandings. Colleges “ought to be able to explain their aid program in [plain] English,” Miller said.