What Is Need-Based Financial Aid?

By Sarah Li Cain · November 30, 2023 · 6 minute read

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What Is Need-Based Financial Aid?

Paying for college can be expensive, but there are several types of financial aid available to students. Some aid awards are determined based on your family’s financial situation. Known as need-based financial aid, amounts are awarded based on several factors, and in some cases, it may not need to be repaid.

If you’re unsure whether you’ll qualify for need-based aid, how much you’ll receive, or whether you need to pay it back, here’s what you need to know.

Defining Need-Based Financial Aid

To put it simply, need-based financial aid is money to help students pay for the costs of attending college that’s awarded based on their financial situation.

Depending on your circumstances, you may qualify for federal or state aid or aid from the institution you attend. Typically, need-based aid is determined based on the information provided on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA®.

Most college students take advantage of what’s offered in their federal financial aid package, which may include the following types of need-based federal financial aid.

💡 Quick Tip: Often, the main goal of refinancing is to lower the interest rate on your student loans — federal and/or private — by taking out one loan with a new rate to replace your existing loans. Refinancing makes sense if you qualify for a lower rate and you don’t plan to use federal repayment programs or protections.

Direct Subsidized Student Loans

The federal government will subsidize (or cover) any interest that accrues on Direct Subsidized Loans for undergraduate students while they are enrolled in school at least half-time and during the six-month grace period after graduation.

After the grace period, interest will start to accrue. This is unlike Direct Unsubsidized Loans, which begin accruing interest as soon as they are disbursed.

There is a limit to how much a student can borrow in federal loans and the amount they borrow cannot exceed their financial need. The maximum amount first-year undergraduate students can borrow cannot exceed $5,500 (or $9,500 for independent students), $3,500 of which is in subsidized loans. The maximum amount you can borrow increases each year you’re enrolled.

Pell Grants

Pell Grants are for undergraduate students who have demonstrated exceptional financial need.They depend on factors such as your expected family contribution, your enrollment status, and how much your schooling will cost.

The maximum amount may vary — it’s $7,395 for the 2023-24 academic year. It may also be possible for students to receive up to 150% of their scheduled award, though qualification requirements will vary.

To be eligible for the Pell Grant, students will need to fill out the FAFSA each year that they are enrolled in undergraduate studies.

Work-Study Programs

The federal work-study program offers part-time jobs for undergraduate or graduate students based on their financial needs. The goal is to provide the opportunity for students to earn money towards education-related expenses and one that’s related to their field of study. There may be jobs both on- and off-campus and the program is administered by participating schools.

The type of job you get and how much you earn will be influenced by factors like when you apply and how much funding your school has. At a minimum, program participants will be paid at least the current federal minimum wage.

If you are awarded work-study as a part of your federal aid package, you can’t earn an amount that’s more than what was awarded.

Recommended: Important FAFSA Deadlines to Know

What’s the Difference Between Need-Based Financial Aid and Ones Based on Merit?

Whereas need-based financial aid is based on the student and their family’s financial circumstances, merit-based aid doesn’t consider finances. Instead, this type of financial aid looks at things like standardized test scores or grade point average, or GPA. In some cases, financial aid is based on other merits such as your class rank.

Some scholarships are based on your class rank. Usually, scholarships are awarded based on merit, though there are plenty based on financial need. Before applying for any financial aid, it’s important to look at the eligibility requirements so you know whether you’ll qualify.

Recommended: How to Get Merit Aid for College

Do I Need to Pay Back Need-Based Financial Aid?

Even though the point of aid based on financial need is to help you cover college expenses you otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, you may have to pay some of it back. For instance, the Pell Grant or other types of grants don’t need to be repaid. Scholarships are another type of aid that recipients are not required to repay. If you participate in the work-study program, the money you’ve earned is also yours.

However, Direct Subsidized Loans will need to be repaid. You won’t, however, need to pay any interest while you’re enrolled at least half-time since the government will cover that. Direct Unsubsidized loans (which aren’t awarded based on need) will also need to be repaid and borrowers will be responsible for the full amount of accrued interest.

In some cases, you may not need to pay back the entire amount if you qualify for student loan forgiveness. There are several types of forgiveness with varying eligibility requirements that depend on factors such as your career path.

For instance, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness, or PSLF program, will forgive the outstanding balance on a Direct Loan if you made 120 monthly qualifying payments. These payments need to be paid while you’re working full-time for a qualifying employer and under a qualifying repayment plan.

To see whether you qualify for a forgiveness program, it may be helpful to speak with a loan officer.

Should I Apply for Need-Based Financial Aid?

There’s nothing wrong with seeing what you may qualify for. Filling out the FAFSA will allow you to determine how much federal aid you qualify for. Some schools will also use the FAFSA to determine additional aid awards.

The FAFSA will require information about you and your family’s financial situation to help determine how much aid you’ll receive. There is also the CSS Profile, which some colleges may use to determine financial aid awards. To fill out the CSS Profile there is a small fee.

That being said, you may not receive enough financial aid even if you qualify. For instance, Pell Grants are typically given on a first-come, first-served basis. It may help to submit the FAFSA as soon as possible. That way, you may be able to find out sooner what you may qualify for. You can submit your FAFSA as soon as October 1 for the following school year.

The Takeaway

Even if you’re not sure if you qualify for need-based aid from the federal government, you may be able to qualify for aid at the state, local or college level. There is also merit-based aid in the form of scholarships and some grants.

Many organizations also award grants and scholarships for specific demographics and those pursuing certain fields. It’s far better to accept free money through grants and scholarships before taking out any loans.

If you do end up borrowing money to pay for college, you may want to consider refinancing your student loans. Doing so can help qualifying borrowers reduce their interest rate, which could lower the amount paid over the life of the loan. Note that refinancing federal loans eliminates them from borrower protections and benefits like PSLF and income-driven repayment plans.

Looking to lower your monthly student loan payment? Refinancing may be one way to do it — by extending your loan term, getting a lower interest rate than what you currently have, or both. (Please note that refinancing federal loans makes them ineligible for federal forgiveness and protections. Also, lengthening your loan term may mean paying more in interest over the life of the loan.) SoFi student loan refinancing offers flexible terms that fit your budget.

With SoFi, refinancing is fast, easy, and all online. We offer competitive fixed and variable rates.

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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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SoFi Student Loan Refinance
If you are a federal student loan borrower, you should consider all of your repayment opportunities including the opportunity to refinance your student loan debt at a lower APR or to extend your term to achieve a lower monthly payment. Please note that once you refinance federal student loans you will no longer be eligible for current or future flexible payment options available to federal loan borrowers, including but not limited to income-based repayment plans or extended repayment plans.


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