14 Must-Know College Financial Aid Terms for Parents

By Kelly Boyer Sagert · February 15, 2023 · 8 minute read

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14 Must-Know College Financial Aid Terms for Parents

When applying for financial aid to fund their college educations, students and their parents are often introduced to words they’d never heard of before. To help you learn the lingo, here are definitions of 14 important financial aid terms, plus information about different ways to pay for college.

Financial Aid Terminology for Parents

1. College Grants

Grants are used to help fund a qualifying student’s college education, and unlike loans, they typically don’t need to be paid back. They are often based on financial need and are available from private and public organizations. Some grants have criteria that a student must meet, such as maintaining a certain grade point average. Here is information about college grants from the U.S. Department of Education .

2. Cost of Attendance (COA)

A student’s cost of attendance (COA) is the total of all costs to attend college in a given year. This includes tuition, room and board, book and supplies, loan fees, costs associated with studying abroad or managing a disability, and more.

A COA is different from an invoice a college may send a student, which is more comprehensive. The COA figure is used to determine how much financial aid a student may be eligible to receive. Anyone who receives a form of financial assistance is not responsible for paying the full COA.

3. Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

The expected family contribution (EFC) is a number colleges use to determine a student’s eligibility for financial aid. It’s calculated using a formula that considers a family’s income, savings, investments, benefits, family size, and more.

Starting with the 2024-2025 school year, the EFC will be replaced by the Student Aid Index, or SAI. Both serve a similar function, but there are key differences in how they work and how students receive financial assistance. Here’s where you can find more information about the SAI.

Recommended: How the Middle Class Affords College

4. Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

FAFSA is the official government form that students must fill out to be eligible for federal student loans and grants. Filling the FAFSA out does not guarantee that a student will receive aid, but it must be completed annually in order to be considered for the upcoming academic year. The information provided will be used to calculate a student’s expected family contribution (see that definition above). Here’s more information about completing a FAFSA application.

5. Financial Aid Award Letter

A financial aid award letter goes by a few different names: merit letter, award letter, a financial aid offer or a financial aid package. But no matter what you call it, once a student fills out a FAFSA, they’ll receive one of these letters from each college that accepts them. A typical letter will list a student’s cost of attendance, expected family contribution, awarded grants and scholarships, work-study details, and federal student loans. Many schools now provide this information electronically.

6. Merit-Based Assistance

Merit-based assistance is based upon a student’s abilities and accomplishments. This can include their grade point average, athletic achievements, or another skill. Financial need is not typically taken into account. Students generally receive merit-based aid directly from the college.

7. Need-Based Assistance

Need-based assistance is provided to students based on their financial needs, and is commonly offered by federal and state governments, colleges, and other organizations. There are three types of federally granted need-based financial aid: Pell Grants, work-study programs, and Subsidized Direct Student Loans. Each of these is defined in this post.

To qualify for federal need-based aid, a student must fill out the FAFSA. Colleges may require additional information for non-federal aid. Simply applying for need-based aid does not mean a student will receive it, though applying early may potentially improve their chances.

8. Parent Loans/Direct PLUS Loans

Parents can borrow funds to help their children pay their college expenses, including through federal loans called Direct PLUS Loans. When this type of loan is provided to a parent borrower, it’s often called a Parent PLUS Loan. Not all schools participate in the Direct Loan Program, so students should check with their colleges of choice to see if this type of funding is an option. Private parent loans are also available through lenders, including SoFi.

Note that graduate or professional students are also eligible to borrow Direct PLUS Loans.

9. Pell Grants

A Pell Grant is a federal form of aid based solely on need. It’s the biggest source of federal grants. To receive these funds, a student must fill out the FAFSA and meet eligibility requirements. Because this is a grant and not a loan, it typically does not need to be repaid.

10. Scholarships

A scholarship is a type of funding awarded to students to help them pay for a college education. They are available through federal and state government sources, colleges, private and public organizations, and more.

Unlike loans, scholarships typically don’t need to be repaid. They can be based on need or merit, or a combination of the two. There is a wide range of scholarship possibilities, so it can be worthwhile for the student to research their options and apply for ones that seem to be a good match.

Recommended: Scholarship Search Tool

11. Student Aid Report (SAR)

After a student completes their FAFSA, they’ll receive a student aid report (SAR). This report provides basic information about the student’s federal student loan eligibility and includes the answers they provided on the FAFSA application. The SAR also contains the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and a four-digit Data Release Number (DRN), which students may need to provide when changing information on their FAFSA. It’s important to review the entire report and address any errors, as colleges use that information to determine aid eligibility.

12. Subsidized vs Unsubsidized Assistance

Federal student aid can include both Direct Subsidized Loans and Direct Unsubsidized Loans, which are also referred to as Stafford Loans or Stafford Direct Loans. There are notable differences between the two.

Subsidized loans are reserved for undergraduate students with demonstrated financial need. The school determines the amount available for each qualifying student. The government will pay the interest on a subsidized loan as long as the student is enrolled in school at least half time (generally 6 credit hours per semester), for six months after the student leaves school (called the “grace period”), and during deferment periods.

With unsubsidized loans, students do not need to demonstrate financial need to qualify, and both undergraduate and graduate students are eligible. Loan limits are higher than with subsidized loans, but interest rates are generally higher, too. The borrower is responsible for interest that accrues from the day their funds are made available. If a student chooses not to pay the interest while they’re in school, it will continue to accumulate.

13. Work-Study

The federal government’s work-study program provides college students who have demonstrable financial need with part-time jobs to help them earn money for their college education. The program attempts to match a student with work in their area of study or in jobs that benefit the community. Students who are interested in this program should check with their colleges of choice to see if they participate.

Here is additional college financial aid glossary , plus financial aid secrets that may help students more effectively fund their education.

Overall College Financial Aid Plan

When it comes to planning how to pay for college, it helps to understand all the available options and how they may be combined. Students and their parents may have money to contribute to help cover the expenses. Scholarships and grants can reduce the bill and typically don’t need to be paid back, while work-study opportunities allow students to earn money to cover some expenses while in college.

Subsidized loans give qualifying students some time to establish themselves financially before the debt starts accruing interest they’ll have to pay. Meanwhile, unsubsidized or private student loans can help borrowers cover remaining costs.

Recommended: Guide to Private Student Loans

Private Student Loans at SoFi

Private student loans, including those from SoFi, can come in handy once you’ve exhausted your other loan options. Borrowers can use the funds to cover all school-certified costs, including tuition, books, room and board, transportation, and more.

SoFi offers fee-free private student loans for undergraduates, graduate students and their parents. These loans don’t have any fees, and borrowers can choose between four different repayment plans. When applying for a SoFi loan, students can quickly and easily find out if they prequalify and at what rates. Adding a cosigner is also simple — just a few clicks away.

SoFi private student loans offer competitive interest rates for qualifying borrowers, flexible repayment plans, and no fees.


What is a cosigner?

A cosigner helps assure lenders that someone will pay back the loan. Their income and financial history are factored into the loan decision, and their positive credit standing can benefit the student’s loan application.

What’s the difference between a student loan lender and a student loan servicer?

Lenders lend borrowers money to help cover school-related costs. Servicers send borrowers their monthly bill, process payments, field customer service requests, and handle other administrative tasks.

How do I calculate my college costs?

There are several online tools to help students estimate the potential cost of attending college. Net price calculators, for instance, are available on a school’s website and give cost estimates based on basic personal and financial information provided by the student.

SoFi Private Student Loans
Please borrow responsibly. SoFi Private Student Loans are not a substitute for federal loans, grants, and work-study programs. You should exhaust all your federal student aid options before you consider any private loans, including ours. Read our FAQs. SoFi Private Student Loans are subject to program terms and restrictions, and applicants must meet SoFi’s eligibility and underwriting requirements. See SoFi.com/eligibility-criteria for more information. To view payment examples, click here. SoFi reserves the right to modify eligibility criteria at any time. This information is subject to change.

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Financial Tips & Strategies: The tips provided on this website are of a general nature and do not take into account your specific objectives, financial situation, and needs. You should always consider their appropriateness given your own circumstances.

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