Admissions

Dissecting Your Financial Aid Package

iStock

For most students, a portion of your college application process was spent completing forms for financial aid in addition to those you sent to college admission offices. Sometimes you can use a little explanation in order to fully understand what’s being offered to you when your financial aid package arrives. There are three types of aid, and your award letter will include details on the combination of those types that the school can offer to meet your demonstrated financial need.

Grants and Scholarships


This is a great way to start: Money that you won’t have to pay back. Grants may be funded by the federal government, the state or the college and are tax-free. Most scholarships are awarded by the college or university, and they may include eligibility criteria, like meeting a GPA threshold or participating in an extracurricular leadership development program.

Some schools are more transparent than others about the amount of grant money available to students, which is usually based on the school’s endowment and aid policy. Some schools guarantee grants or scholarships for accepted students who meet GPA and test score thresholds. Some find creative ways to give aid to all of their students. Cooper Union in New York, N.Y., awards every student who attends a scholarship to cover half of their tuition, and all students are automatically considered for additional merit aid. Berea College in Berea, Ky., awards every admitted student a Tuition Promise Scholarship, which is combined with financial aid to cover the full cost of tuition. (Keep in mind that tuition does not include room and board, personal expenses or travel.) At Guilford College in Greensboro, N.C., every student in the class of 2017 received some amount of scholarship money. These are just three examples of schools with strong public track records of awarding generous financial aid.

Student Loans

Education loans are typically taken out by the student rather than their parents. Federal and state loans are often subsidized, and below-market interest rates guaranteed, by the government. You won’t have to pay back the loans until you graduate, and many loan programs offer income-based repayment options. Even with favorable borrowing and repayment terms, be wary of accruing debt in college, and take out private unsubsidized loans as little as possible.

Federal Work-Study

This is a program through which the government provides money to the school to fund part-time jobs on campus for students. The money you earn through a work-study job goes to tuition and/or living expenses. It’s also an opportunity to gain valuable work experience — many schools guarantee jobs to students who are eligible for work-study, and these experiences can help you find more lucrative summer employment and/or build your resume. The financial aid office will have a list of open positions and guidance on applying; jobs will likely run the gamut from food prep in the cafeteria to handling confidential information in the development office.

Finding the means to pay for college is undoubtedly one of the biggest worries expressed in our College Hopes & Worries survey, but don’t forget that there are always places you can search to find ways to make paying for college a little more bearable. Keeping up with your FAFSA deadlines is a great place to start, as is searching for additional scholarships, including looking in places you might not normally think about. Once you realize your potential options, that concern becomes just another thing you can check off your college application to-do list.