How College Financial Aid Works

By David Wolinsky · August 15, 2023 · 6 minute read

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How College Financial Aid Works

It doesn’t matter whether you’re the student or the parents wading through college application and tuition figures: Going to college is a huge life decision, almost always synonymous with huge sticker shock.

According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost for tuition and fees to attend a private college for the 2022-2023 academic year was $39,723. The price tag for a public college was $10,423 as an in-state student and $22,953 as an out-of-state student. Tuition, it should be noted, does not include room and board and other living expenses.

Fortunately, there are financial aid systems in place for college students to help offset the high costs. Here’s what you need to know about college financial aid, including how it works, the different types of financial aid, and how to apply.

What Is Financial Aid?

Broadly speaking, the term “financial aid” refers to any funding that doesn’t come from the student’s (or their family’s) savings. It can be heartening to know that schools typically don’t expect enrollees to cover college costs from their savings and income alone. According to the 2023 Sallie Mae survey How America Pays for College, the typical family covered 29% of college costs with scholarships and grants.

Financial aid is available from a variety of sources, including federal and state agencies, colleges, high schools, community organizations, foundations, and corporations. It can be awarded in the form of loans, grants, scholarships, and work-study programs. The type of aid determines whether it will have to be repaid or not: federal grants don’t need to be repaid, for example, but a loan will.

You can generally use financial aid to cover a range of college-related costs, including tuition and fees, room and board, books/supplies, and transportation.

💡 Quick Tip: Fund your education with a low-rate, no-fee SoFi private student loan that covers all school-certified costs.

Federal Student Aid

To apply for federal financial aid, you simply need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). This form is required in order to be considered for federal aid as well as for most college and state assistance. (Some private colleges use a supplemental form called the College Scholarship Service Profile, or CSS, which is more detailed and can be more time-consuming to complete.)

The FAFSA form is known for being cumbersome, but the U.S. Department of Education is rolling out a new simplified FAFSA for the 2024-2025 academic year. It will be available in December 2023, a delay from the usual October 1 release.

There’s a run-down of the deadlines here, but the key one for the 2023-2024 academic year, for example, is June 30, 2024 to submit your FAFSA; the window for corrections or updates is by 11:59 p.m. Central Time, September 14, 2024. Note that each state and college may have its own deadlines on top of that.

The Federal Student Aid office advises filling out the FAFSA as soon as possible after it becomes available, even if you’re unsure whether or not you will qualify for any financial aid.

Some states award aid on a first come basis, so submitting a FAFSA application early could be helpful. A FAFSA application is also a pre-requirement to be considered for federal grants like the Pell Grant, which is “usually awarded only to undergraduate students who display exceptional financial need and have not earned a bachelor’s, graduate, or professional degree.”

The FAFSA is also required to be considered for the federal work-study program, which provides part-time jobs to help pay for education expenses. Such programs usually encourage community service work and work related to the expected course of study. Here’s’s official site tackling the FAQs of these highly variable programs.

State-Based Student Aid

Depending on where you live or choose to go to school, you’ll likely also have access to aid at the state level. Virtually every state education agency has at least one grant or scholarship available to residents, and many states have a long list of available student aid programs.

While eligibility for state-based financial aid is usually restricted to state residents attending a college in-state, that’s not always the case. SoFi has a state-by-state breakdown of grants and scholarships available for college students.

Some schools may also offer state-based aid or discounts.

Merit- vs Need-Based Financial Aid

Financial aid can generally be broken down into two types — need-based aid and merit-based aid.

Some federal aid is need-based — like the Pell Grant and Direct Subsidized Loans (more on this loan type below) — meaning eligibility is based solely on the assets and income of the prospective student and their family. Factors like test scores or athletic ability, for example, have no bearing here.

The opposite is true for merit-based scholarships, which are based on a student’s talents and interests, whether they are artistic, academic, or athletic. A student’s financial situation is not considered here.

To learn about both merit- and need-based aid programs that may be a good fit for you, it’s a good idea to talk to your high school guidance counselor, as well as the financial aid office at your selected school.

You’ll be automatically considered for many need-based aid programs just by filling out the FAFSA. However, you may also want to search for private scholarships (which can be merit- or need-based) online. While these awards tend to be small, you may be able to combine several scholarships, which could make a dent in your expenses.

Recommended: What Is a Scholarship & How to Get One?

Federal Student Loans

Most students’ federal financial aid packages include federal student loans, which are awarded based on financial need and the cost of attending college. These include Direct Subsidized Loans, Direct Unsubsidized Loans, and Direct PLUS Loans.

The advantages of federal student loans include low, fixed interest rates, no credit checks required to borrow them, unique borrower protections (like forbearance and deferment), and repayment plans based on income and/or your commitment to eligible public service work post-graduation.

With Direct Subsidized Loans, the government pays the interest while the student is attending school at least half-time. That’s what the “subsidized” means here. These loans are awarded based on financial need.

Direct Unsubsidized Loans, on the other hand, are awarded regardless of financial need. However, you are responsible for paying the interest on these loans from the moment you get them, though you can defer making any payments until six months after you graduate. While you are in school, the interest will accumulate and get added to your loan balance.

Direct PLUS Loans are also unsubsidized, and are awarded to either eligible graduate students or parents of undergraduate students and require a credit check to ensure there’s no “adverse credit history.” In short, that means they can be more difficult to qualify for as compared to Direct Unsubsidized Loans.

💡 Quick Tip: Parents and sponsors with strong credit and income may find much lower rates on no-fee private parent student loans than federal parent PLUS loans. Federal PLUS loans also come with an origination fee.

Private Student Loans

If your federal student aid package and other forms of funding don’t quite cover your cost of attending college, there are also private student loans to consider.

Private student loans are offered by banks, credit unions, and online lenders. The interest rates may be fixed or variable, and are set by the lender. Unlike federal student loans, private student loans require a credit check. Students who have excellent credit (or who have cosigners who do) tend to qualify for the lowest rates.

An advantage of private student loans is that you may be able to borrow up to 100% of the cost of college tuition and living expenses. However, private loans don’t always offer the same protections, such as income-driven repayment plans, that come with federal loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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