What to know about financial aid and student loans before committing to a college

What to know about financial aid packages

With the deadline to commit to a college next Wednesday, for many students, figuring out financial aid is a key part of the college application process. But it can get complicating to understand your financial aid package.

"First of all these letters are really confusing because there is no uniform way that colleges and universities have to report to families about what is loan, what is grant, what is scholarship," CBS News business analyst Jill Schlesinger said Thursday on "CBS This Morning." "So when you get that letter, be very careful. Families are often confusing loans and grants, that's number one."

Schlesinger also said to note the difference between a federal direct subsidized and unsubsidized loan. 

"Subsidized loan means when the money is dispersed, they wait to start the interest calculations until you graduate. And unsubsidized loan, that clock starts ticking as soon as the money is dispersed," she said. "Hey parents, those PLUS loans, those are ticking away too, whether your kid graduates or not."

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CBS News

Also, remember that the financial aid letter is for one year only.

Your letter may not include information about the interest rates for the loans. In that case, Schlesinger urged families to research their options. She advised using websites like ConsumerFinance.gov from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to compare the different offers, and Money-Mentor.com, a free service to help navigate the process.

With student loan debt soaring to $1.57 trillion last year, Schlesinger warned: "Please just don't sign on the dotted line without doing homework."