Navigating Your Financial Aid Package

By Kayla McCormack · March 26, 2023 · 10 minute read

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Navigating Your Financial Aid Package

College financial aid includes grants, scholarships, work-study and federal student loans. Scholarships and grants are forms of aid that generally don’t need to be repaid. Students who qualify for work-study are able to find part-time employment that can help them pay for college costs. Federal student loans are also considered financial aid, but unlike scholarships or grants, generally need to be repaid, typically with interest. Because you’ll be responsible for repaying student loans, it’s essential that you fully understand the terms of borrowing.

After applying for federal aid by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), students can expect to receive a financial aid award that details the type and amount of aid for which they qualify. Financial aid can be incredibly helpful when trying to finance your college education, but it’s possible that you may not receive enough to fully foot your tuition bill. If that’s the case, there are other options available to help you pay for your education. Continue reading for more information on understanding your financial aid package and the options to consider should you find yourself in need of additional funding.

The Steps to Getting a Financial Aid Package

In order to get any financial aid package for college, the first step is generally to fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid , commonly known as FAFSA®.

The FAFSA for the 2023-24 school year became available Oct. 1, 2022, and the application cycle ends on June 30, 2024. Some states and colleges have separate deadlines for the FAFSA to determine aid. Consider contacting your school’s financial aid office for questions on the deadline required by your state or school.

Filling out the FAFSA requires some basic financial and income information. If you’re a dependent student, then you’ll need your parents’ financial info as well. For higher income families or those in unique financial situations, this can be a little tricky.

All federal loans, both subsidized and unsubsidized, require a FAFSA in order to determine eligibility. Colleges may also use the FAFSA to determine their own financial aid awards and packages, based on things like expected family contribution and financial need.

After you fill out the FAFSA, the Office of Federal Student Aid at the U.S. Department of Education will process your FAFSA and send you a Student Aid Report (SAR), which is essentially a summary of your information. It’s usually worth reviewing this information in detail to confirm that all of the information is accurate. If you find a mistake after reviewing your SAR, you’ll likely need to update or correct your FAFSA .

The SAR will include the calculated Expected Family Contribution (EFC), which is how much you and/or your family can be expected to contribute personally towards your education. (Next year, the EFC will be replaced by the Student Aid Index.)

Then, colleges use this information to determine eligibility for university, local, state, and federal financial aid. Sometimes schools may also ask for additional information, particularly if you are applying for school-specific scholarships.

The schools will then assemble a financial aid package that could be made up of grants, loans, work-study, and other waivers, and send you an “award letter.” Reviewing your award letter carefully can help you choose the financial aid mix that is right for you. Often these financial aid award letters come shortly after admissions decisions, though this may vary. Students typically have a deadline (often May 1, which is National College Decision Day) to make their decisions by.

It’s important to understand and compare the financial aid packages you’ve gotten from different colleges — even if that can be a little confusing. The key is to break down the jargon in order to help make an informed decision.

Understanding What’s in the Average Financial Aid Package

The format of an award letter can vary from college to college. That, in combination with financial aid jargon can make it difficult to decipher, but at its heart a financial aid package is a list of different amounts of money in different forms of loans, grants, work-study, or other tuition waivers that should add up to cover the cost of the college, minus your expected family contribution.

Yet, you may have to decode the language and research each of the line items. Sometimes, for example, instead of clearly identifying loans as such, they might be simply denoted with abbreviations like “L” or “LN” in the award letter. Here are the different types of financial aid you may see in your financial aid package:

Grants and Scholarships

These don’t have to be repaid, so they are sometimes referred to as “gift aid.” These could be school, state, or federal scholarships and grants you qualified for and were awarded.


This is part-time work you will do and be paid for. You’ll be paid at least the federal minimum wage, but depending on the job, you could earn more. Being granted work-study in your aid package does not always guarantee a job. Depending on the school you attend, you may be matched with a job or you may have to apply for and secure your own job.

Federal Student Loans

Federal loans can be either subsidized or unsubsidized, and usually have lower interest rates than private loans. There is also typically a cap on how much you can borrow.

Subsidized loans are for undergrads and are awarded based on financial need; additionally, the government pays the interest on them while you’re in school at least half-time, during your grace period, or during periods of deferment.

Unsubsidized loans are available to undergraduate and graduate students and are not awarded based on financial need. This type of loan accrues interest while a student is enrolled at least half-time, during the loan’s grace period, or during other periods of deferment.

Borrowers have the option to make interest-only payments during this time, but are not required to do so. If the interest on the student loan accrues, at the end of the deferment period it will be capitalized or added to the principal value of the loan.

There are also PLUS loans for parents and graduate students, which are also unsubsidized.

Beyond Federal Financial Aid: Private Student Loans

Private student loans are not part of a federal financial aid package. Private student loans can be borrowed from a private lender, which typically have more stringent financial qualifications and, like federal loans, must be paid back with interest. Typically, that interest also accrues while you’re in school.

Check the terms of any private student loans you’re considering and the interest rate being offered to get a sense of how they stack up to federal loans. Federal loans also offer benefits that private student loans do not, such as income-driven repayment plans, deferment options, or the

In order to make the decision that’s best for you, you’ll want to compare the total cost of attendance, how much gift aid is being awarded, and the loans you’ve received and their terms. This should give you a better idea of how much any federal loans will cost you, and whether there is a gap in funding.

The total cost of college may change over a student’s enrollment, so it generally needs to be calculated each year. Consider things like fluctuation in tuition rates, federal interest rates, and your financial aid award which, among other factors, have the potential to change.

Tips on How to Compare Financial Aid Packages

One of the most important things to look at when comparing financial aid packages for college is the net price. What that means is the actual cost to you, minus all awards. To find the net price you need to figure out the total cost for each college and then subtract the amount of grants and gift aid (e.g., not loans).

Factor in how much you can borrow in loans, and carefully consider the loan terms. And then you can calculate how much each college will cost you additionally out-of-pocket.

Just because one school is giving you more in financial aid doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best financial option. For example, if it will ultimately cost you more because the college is more expensive and, perhaps, you’re going to need to borrow a private student loan with a comparatively high interest rate to cover what your federal aid doesn’t cover.

However, a financial aid package won’t always list the net price and many of the financial aid award letters don’t even necessarily tell you how much a specific college costs in total.

Some letters only outline the direct cost to the school — e.g., tuition and fees — but don’t include room and board or other expenses.

It can be helpful to make your own spreadsheet to ensure you’re comparing apples-to-apples. Figure out the total cost of attendance for each school you’re considering. Include tuition, fees, room and board, and you can even estimate expenses like books, supplies, and living expenses.

Note how much is being awarded in gift aid (grants and scholarships), how much you’re offered federal student loans, and how much it’ll cost you out-of-pocket. If needed, consider private student loans, carefully evaluating their loan terms.

Also understand whether the scholarships or grants in your aid package are a recurring award that will be given to you each year, or whether they are a one-time award.

It’s also worth noting that you are not required to accept all of the loans offered in your financial aid package. You can choose to borrow a lesser amount, which could help save you money in the long run by reducing the money you owe in interest.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the College Board both have tools to more accurately compare financial aid packages and the costs of college.

If Your Financial Aid Package for College Isn’t Enough

Sometimes you do the math, compare all the costs, and feel like your financial aid package for college just isn’t adding up.

Appeal the Financial Aid Decision

It is possible to appeal a financial aid package, particularly if you’ve had changed circumstances or if there was a gap between the cost and the award. While writing an appeal letter might be a first step if your financial aid package isn’t enough to cover the cost of college, it doesn’t guarantee your award will change.

It also might be the case that circumstances change and you lose your financial aid or portions of your award package. In these situations, there are options in addition to or besides appealing.

Apply for Private Scholarships

You can look into private scholarships, of course. These are different from the scholarships and grants awarded by the state or school. However, private scholarships are considered non-need-based aid and will factor into the cost of attendance — and each school deals with that differently.

Get a Part-Time Job

Even if you don’t qualify for the work-study program, you could look for a part-time job. There may be on-campus jobs available, like working as a teaching assistant, or tour guide. Another option is to look off-campus for a job. There may be local restaurants, coffee shops, or stores that are looking for part-time associates.

Consider a Private Student Loan

Private student loans are another tool that could help students fill in financial gaps. Keep in mind, that, as mentioned, private student loans may lack borrower benefits afforded to federal student loan borrowers. If you think a private student loan is something that could work for you, get quotes from a few different lenders to compare the terms and conditions, so you can find the best loan for you. Some student borrowers may also consider applying with a cosigner, who could potentially help them qualify for more competitive loan terms.

The Takeaway

Your financial aid package will state the amount and types of aid you receive. Financial aid includes scholarships, grants, work-study, and federal student loans. Carefully compare your financial aid awards at each college when you are making your college decision.

If you don’t get enough financial aid, you might consider getting a part-time job, applying for private scholarships, or borrowing a private student loan. Keep in mind that, as mentioned, private student loans are generally only considered an option after all other financing has been exhausted. If you’re interested in a private student loan, consider SoFi. SoFi offers private student loans with no origination fees and no late fees.

Find out what rate and terms you may prequalify for in just a few minutes.

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