Unlike the "Common Application," there is not one agreed upon format for awarding financial aid. Furthermore, different colleges have different costs and financial aid methodologies that you should consider when comparing packages.
In order to compare financial aid packages, subtract the total amount of aid offered from the total cost of attendance. Do not forget to take estimated costs such as travel, books and living expenses into account (some colleges will include these expenses with the package and some will not). The remaining number is the Estimated Family Contribution, what we call the out-of-pocket expenses for your family. You should also consider other factors, such as the amount of loan you must assume versus how much of the financial aid package is scholarship or grant, and whether the package contains work-study.
It is important to remember that the packages you receive from different colleges may differ widely. One reason for this may be that one college offers merit aid and one does not. Hamilton does not offer merit aid; our financial aid is entirely need-based. While cost should certainly be an important factor for your family, you should also consider the value of various colleges as well as which colleges will best serve your personal and academic interests and goals for the long-term.