Find answers to our Frequently Asked Questions.

The Basics

Financial aid can greatly affect your college experience by easing some stress you might have about being able to afford it. During the 2014-2015 school year, about two-thirds of full-time students received federal aid in the form of grants and scholarships according to CollegeBoard. Fifty-seven percent of financial aid dollars was awarded to undergraduates as grants and 34% as federal loans. This should be encouraging – more than half of undergrads who completed the FAFSA received financial help to fulfill their future!

Determine Your Financial Need

Once you have decided on what colleges you want to apply for, you’ll need to determine your financial aid need for each one.

Cost of Attendance – Expected Family Contribution = Financial Need

The cost of attendance is how much it will cost you to go to your university per year. This should include all expenses, like room and board, tuition, and transportation.

Your expected family contribution is anything you, your parents, or other family members will be paying towards the cost of attendance, including any college savings.

The remainder of the cost of attendance will be your financial need. This gives you a better idea of the dollar amount you’ll need in scholarships, grants, and loans.

How Do You Get Financial Aid?

To receive federal financial aid, the student and parent(s) must submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as FAFSA. This free application is processed by the U.S. Department of Education.

After submitting the application, you’ll receive a comprehensive package of what loans and grants the student is being offered before the school year begins depending on eligibility, timing, and other factors.


The simple definition of grants is financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid. Think of it as free money going towards your college tuition from the federal government after completing the FAFSA. The money is given to the student based on need or merit.

You can also receive grants from the state government, college, or private organizations.

The federal government offers Federal Pell Grants, Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education (TEACH) Grants, and Iraq and Afghanistan Service Grants.

Federal Work-Study

A Federal Work-Study aligns part-time jobs for students with financial need and allows them to earn money to help pay for education expenses. There are many types of jobs offered depending on the school you attend, with both on- and off-campus jobs.

To find a work-study job, contact the career services or financial aid department at your school. They will be able to point you in the right direction and work with you to find a job that fits your needs.

You will make at least minimum wage and only earn what was presented to you in your financial aid package. The money you earn in work-study is taxable, but it won’t affect how much aid you receive for the next year.

Federal Loans

Federal loans will be presented in your financial aid package. The package will define how much money is being offered in the form of grants and loans.

There are two types of Federal Student Loan Programs – The William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program (also known as Direct Loans) and the Federal Perkins Loan Program. Under these are different categories of loans.

Direct Subsidized Loans Undergraduate students that demonstrate financial need are eligible. Subsidized loans do not accrue interest while you are in school at least half-time or during deferment periods.
Direct Unsubsidized Loans Undergraduate, graduate, and professional students are eligible to receive this loan. Your school will determine the borrowing amount based on cost of attendance and other financial aid received. You will accrue interest from the starting period.
Direct PLUS Loans Available for graduate or professional students and parents of undergraduate students. Used to help pay for education expenses not covered by other financial aid.
Direct Consolidation Loans Combine all your eligible federal student loans into a single loan with a loan servicer.
Federal Perkins Loans – School Based School is the lender for undergraduate and graduate students with exceptional financial need.

You’re not required to accept any of the financial aid offered to you, including loans. This is important to remember – grants are given to you and don’t have to be repaid, but any loans the student accepts, they will be responsible for repaying.

The student will need to complete the Master Promissory Note and online counseling if accepting a federal loan. The Master Promissory Note is a legal document where you promise to pay back your loans and the counseling covers any responsibilities and obligations.

Private Loans

There are also private student loans companies. These are separate from your financial aid packages and require a separate application.

Private loans will have higher interest rates than federal loans and you will pay interest throughout the whole period of having the loan. You cannot consolidate them down the road with federal loans and they aren’t backed by the government.

The FAFSA Process

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, is a necessary part of paying for college. It’s an online form that is filled out each year the student will be in college.

This form is used to determine eligibility for federal financial aid, including grants, work study, and loans. The FAFSA may also be used by colleges, universities, and some private lenders to determine eligibility for their financial aid.

While there are many myths about financial aid and the FAFSA, it’s important to remember that no matter what, you cannot receive any type of federal aid unless you complete the FAFSA – including grant money! So even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for anything, still complete the FAFSA.

You can begin filling out the FAFSA after October 1 of the student’s senior year in high school or if they’re a returning college student. Many schools also have their own specific deadlines for financial aid. You’ll want to submit your FAFSA as soon as possible as many funds are limited and given on a first come first serve basis.

Prepare Yourself

Before you sit down to complete the FAFSA, take some time to gather the information you’ll need. For many of the questions, you’ll need information for both parent and student.

Some items you’ll need include:

  • W-2 Forms and other tax documents for the parent(s) and student to show money earned from the previous year 
  • Federal Income Tax Returns
  • Social Security Numbers
  • Driver’s License numbers
  • The names of schools you’re considering 

Check out the Student Aid website for a more extensive list of items you will need.

Create Your FAFSA ID

Your FAFSA ID is a username and password used to verify your identity when filling out the FAFSA and when accessing your financial aid documents. This will allow you to sign documents electronically. The student and parent will each need a separate ID.

Complete and Submit the FAFSA

Set aside some time to go through the FAFSA. Answer the questions honestly. Before you hit submit, verify your answers.

Review Your Student Aid Report

After you’ve submitted the FAFSA, the form will be processed, information will be verified, and a Student Aid Report (SAR) will be developed and sent to you.

The SAR includes a summary of your information and the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The EFC is sent to the schools you indicated on the FAFSA for use in calculating your award package.

Review Financial Aid Package

After the school receives your EFC, they will calculate your Financial Need. To get this number, they subtract your EFC from the Cost of Attendance.

Once they have your Financial Need, they will put together a financial aid package that helps meet that need. This package could include grants, work study (if you selected that as an option on your FAFSA), and loans.

Compare and Select a School

If you’ve applied to multiple schools, you’ll receive multiple award letters.

Take some time to review what each school is able to offer you. Were they able to meet your financial need 100%? Are you going to need to find alternate ways to pay for your school? How much will you need to take out in loans at each school? Use this chart to help you compare.

Accept Aid Package

Once you’ve decided on a school, you also need to accept your aid package. You don’t need to accept everything the school offers you – this includes the type of aid and the amount. You only accept what you need.

You always want to accept grants and scholarships, as these do not need to be paid back.

Next, you’ll want to accept work study (if you selected it as an option). While the money doesn’t need to be paid back, you do have to apply for and keep a job to continue receiving the money. Visit the career services department at your school to see what jobs they have available for work study and apply as soon as you can.

Next, you’ll want to accept any subsidized loans. With subsidized loans, the interest on the loan does not begin to accrue until you leave school.

Finally, accept unsubsidized loans if you need them. Interest on unsubsidized loans begins to accrue as soon as you take out the loan.

Once you’ve decided what you want to accept, follow the instructions on the award letter.