Financial Aid Overview

Paying for College: Overview | Financial Aid at Top Colleges | Net Price Calculators | Glossary

There are various financial aid resources for low-income students to help you pay for any college you plan to attend. However, the amount of financial aid will vary per college, depending on each college’s ability to meet your financial need.

All students must reapply for financial aid every year, as changes to household income, assets, or other circumstances can affect financial aid packages. Even if you become a Match Scholarship Recipient, you must still renew your financial aid every year. Although the full four-year scholarship is guaranteed, the amount of financial aid that comes from different sources may differ each year. Having a good understanding of the types of aid listed below is important. 

Determining Your Financial Aid

The first important step in determining your financial aid is figuring out how much you and your household can reasonably pay per year toward your college education. This sum is called the Expected Family Contribution or EFC. To determine your EFC, you must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA examines various factors, including how much your parents earn, how many people live in your home, and your parents’ savings. Based on this information, the Department of Education determines your family’s EFC. The FAFSA EFC is often used to determine eligibility for state and federal funding.

Many private colleges also require the CSS Profile, which is a financial aid application that is offered by the College Board. The Profile asks for detailed financial and household information and costs $25 to file for one school, plus $16 to send to each individual school you select. Fee waivers are available for students from low-income households. Schools that require the Profile will also determine your family’s EFC according to the information. Please note that colleges evaluate all of your financial information to calculate their own EFC, which could differ from what the FAFSA calculates.

Based on your EFC, your college will determine your eligibility for financial aid. The amount of financial aid for which you are eligible is the difference between how much your family can pay (the EFC) and how much the school costs to attend. This amount is your “financial need.”

The Federal Government 

Financial aid from the federal government can be determined by the information provided through your FAFSA. The government has several financial aid programs:

Grants are awards that do not need to be paid back, making them the best type of financial aid. There are several types of federal grants. The most common grant for low-income students are Pell Grants, which range from $1 to over $5,500 depending on your EFC.

Students can borrow money from the federal government to pay for college. Student Loans must be paid back over time with interest, typically starting after graduation. The government generally offers the best student loans with the most favorable borrowing conditions, including the Direct Subsidized Loan, a loan that does not accrue interest while you are a student. You can find more information about Federal Student Loans here.

Parents can borrow money from the federal government to pay for their child’s college education. Parent Loans must be paid back with interest over time. The main parent loan is the Federal PLUS loan.

Work-study programs allow students to work while in college. Some programs are offered through the federal government, which means the government pays a portion of the wages while the employer pays the remainder. The money you earn from your work-study job can be used to pay for your school expenses, such as books and supplies. Contact colleges of interest to you to learn more about their different work-study programs.

Your State Government 

Most state governments provide financial aid to their in-state students. For example, the Cal Grant is available for California residents attending college in state. Check with your school counselor to see if your state provides any special financial aid and how to apply.

Your College

Scholarship and grant funding from your college can be a very significant resource in helping your family pay for college. Colleges use any combination of the FAFSA, CSS Profile, or their own supplementary financial aid form to determine your need and eligibility. You will need to determine what forms your college requires. In addition to need-based aid, many colleges have scholarships and grants based on merit. Keep in mind that QuestBridge college partners commit to meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need. Read more about how top colleges can be more affordable than public or community colleges.

Some colleges may also offer their own loan programs, allowing students to borrow money from the college directly. These loans are paid back to the college over time, typically after graduation. Be sure to check the borrowing conditions, including interest rates, repayment terms, and qualifications.

Private Sources and Outside Scholarships

No matter where you are applying to college, we recommend applying for additional, outside scholarships. An “outside scholarship” is money from an outside organization (i.e., not your college) that does not need to be paid back. Outside scholarships are an excellent way to cover expenses such as books and supplies, a new laptop, or even your expected work-study contribution. Keep in mind that each college has a different policy on how outside scholarships impact students' financial aid packages.

Search for foundations like the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, large corporations like the Coca Cola Company, and community groups such as your local Rotary Club. Enlist the help of your school counselor or search online for private scholarships available for students from a wide range of backgrounds and interests. Large scholarship search websites will help you identify many scholarships, but keep in mind that these can be very competitive or not always match your interests. Schools, towns, and local organizations often offer scholarships to local students, which might be less competitive than national scholarships.

Reputable scholarship online search services include Cappex, FastWeb, Scholarships.com, and Niche. Remember, you should never pay for these services. We recommend that you do not put too much weight on claims about the number of scholarships or total amount of awards (e.g. $1.2 million scholarships and over $3 billion in totals awards) in a service's database. Try out several of these engines, and then utilize the two or three that work best for you.

More Information

For more information about financial aid terminology, please see our Financial Aid Glossary.