Receiving a graduate admissions package with any amount of financial aid from the school of your choice is something to be grateful for. Getting a master’s degree is a big investment, so every penny you don’t have to pay out of pocket is a wonderful thing. However, you may find yourself in a situation where multiple grad programs have offered you a financial aid package, and now you must figure out which school is offering you the most, for the least. When comparing your admissions packages there are some important factors you need to consider to get the most accurate Return-on-Investment (ROI) calculation.

Understanding your graduate admissions package

Before doing any kind of calculation or side-by-side comparison, you need to figure out what exactly your admissions package is granting you. The number may look big, but if the majority of your financial aid is a loan that you’ll have to pay back after graduation, it may not actually be that helpful. So, make sure you aren’t just looking at the grand total that your package adds up to, but actually understanding how much of that money you’ll have to give back, and how much comes in the form of grants or scholarships.

Calculate the “net price” of your master’s degree.

Once you are confident in your understanding of what each school is offering you, the next step is calculating the “net price,” which is the number you will use to compare the actual cost of each grad school. To get that number, you will need to know the Cost of Attendance (COA) for each grad school. The COA is not just the cost of a school’s tuition, it’s every expense you’ll accumulate from attending that school. This includes room and board, books, transportation, activities, equipment, etc. Tuition fees are only one part of the cost of grad school.

Once you calculate the COA, the next number you are looking for is the amount of financial aid that is free. This is the money you don’t have to pay back after graduation, usually in the form of a grant or scholarship. It is extremely important that you are thorough in this step because sometimes schools will list a loan under “financial aid award” or a similar name, leading you to believe it’s all “free” money. Once you calculate the total amount of free money, subtract that number from the COA, and that number is the actual amount it will cost you to attend that school.

Take into consideration the aid that can’t be quantified

Now that you know how much each grad school will cost with the admissions packages they have offered you, it’s time to be realistic. Look at the fine print on the free money you have calculated. Most grants and scholarships have conditions attached to them such as a one year or one semester time limit or a GPA requirement. Receiving an academic scholarship is great, but make sure you’re able to uphold whatever GPA or credit requirement is attached to it. If a scholarship adds too much stress or prevents you from having a job to pay for the rest of your tuition, it may not be a good fit.

Don’t forget to take a school’s value into account

When trying to figure out which admissions package is the better deal, there’s more to consider than just the numbers. At the end of the day, it is very likely that your first-choice school is going to offer you less money because its reputation and pool of applicants are more competitive. However, if paying more now means having a better chance of getting a good job after graduation, then you should attend that school.

Choosing the cheaper school isn’t always the most financially responsible choice. Just because you’re saving money now doesn’t mean your ROI will be greater in the long run. Having all the facts and figures in front of you is going to make your options much clearer, but ultimately you need to make the decision that is best for you. It’s your future, after all!