Clients may not realize it, but an hour with a financial planner might save them thousands when it comes to evaluating financial offer letters from colleges. Now might be the time to offer them overall advice or your assessment.  “In order to make sure you get the best possible college financial package, you need to examine every offer with a critical eye,” says Scott Anderson, President of eduLaunchpad.com.   “Unfortunately, waiting often produces impatience.  And impatience can lead a student to take a bad college offer.”

Hence, the first piece of advice:  Wait until you have all the college financial offers in hand before making a decision.

In the 2010-11 academic year, full-time students at private nonprofit four-year institutions received about $16,000 in grant aid from all sources and federal tax benefits, according to the College Board. The bill before aid was about $27,300 on average at these schools ($11, 300 after aid) plus $9,700 for room and board.  But clients should be prepared to negotiate.  Smaller and private colleges typically have some flexibility to sweeten the offer for a desirable student.

To see the possibilities, clients should research the percentage of “need met” at each school.  That number, combined with the expected family contribution from the FAFSA form, should give a range of what to expect. If an offer is below average, they may want to appeal.  If it seems unusually generous,  they should be sure they understand the details. Award letters are complex. That’s because financial aid comes from many sources and in myriad forms, ranging from grants and scholarships to work study and loans. In fact, Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Finaid.org and author of the new e-book "Secrets to Winning a Scholarship," suspects that some colleges purposefully obfuscate the offers because they don't want to lose students to schools that are better funded or more generous.

It’s a good idea to create columns for each school, listing at the top the full cost of attendance for that institution. The figure should include costs for tuition, fees, books, and room and board. Schools do not necessarily report all the same costs in their price-tags. Some schools will provide an estimate that includes all these costs. Others will mention only the cost of tuition.  Some schools report tuition, room, and board.  Some schools add books. Others add books and supplies.  CollegeBoard.com or CollegeNavigator.gov provide estimates of expenses.

For example, the College Board estimates a base moderate budget for a year of $23,770 ($17,820 for nine months). A low budget would be $15,920 for a year and $11,940 a nine months. Clients can customize for region at the site.  Housing and food accounts for 47% of the cost, and transportation adds another 18%.

The next step is to add up the value of scholarships and grants offered, and subtract that from the cost of attendance at each school. That should be the net cost.  Advise clients to leave out loans and work-study job offers and consider those separately.

Clients also need to know if any of the schools provide more grant aid to freshmen than sophomores, juniors and seniors. Assuming  a student intends to stay in school until a degree is earned, your clients need to know whether less aid will be available in coming years. Published tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities rose at an average rate of 4.9% per year beyond general inflation from 1999-2000 to 2009-10. At private not-for-profit four-year colleges, prices rose 2.7% a year.

Clients also need to know how the school adjusts aid when students receive private scholarships. (One scholarship search site is FastWeb.com.) The best deal is when the college cuts work-study and loan aid; the worst is when they reduce scholarship aid. Some colleges do a 50-50 split.

How much should students borrow? In the 2007-2008 academic year, the latest figure from the College Board, 10% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduated with $39,300 or more in education debt, and a quarter graduated with at least $24,600. “It is difficult to accurately predict future earnings, and many young people have a limited understanding of the impact of the obligations they are undertaking. Too many students are borrowing more than they are likely to be able to manage,” says Sandy Baum, of the College Board.