How Does Financial Aid Work? – BigFuture (2024)

If you’re considering college after high school, figuring out how to pay for college may be something you’re very worried about. You’re not alone. Billions of dollars of financial aid are available to students every year who need help paying for college. If you want this assistance, make it a priority to determine your eligibility and apply on time.

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Watch this 3-minute video about financial aid, scholarships, and the costs of college.

Billions of dollars in financial aid are awarded to students each year. Some of this financial aid is awarded based on family financial circ*mstances. This type of financial aid is sometimes called “need based.” To apply for need-based financial aid, most students will need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA®. You may also need to complete the CSS Profile—check the list of schools that use CSS Profile.

These applications are used to determine your eligibility for different types of financial aid that can help lower the cost of attending college. You can also receive financial aid from other sources, including local and national scholarship organizations and merit-based scholarships, which are awarded based on your achievements, talents, and other characteristics. Scholarships and grants are free money that don’t have to be repaid. Loans are money you or your parent(s) may borrow and must be repaid, usually after you graduate or stop attending school. If you need assistance paying for college, consider applying for financial aid to learn more about your options.

How do I apply for financial aid?

You apply for financial aid by completing the financial aid applications required by the colleges you’re interested in. The FAFSA and CSS Profile are web-based applications that require you to provide demographic, financial, and other information about you and your family. Learn how to complete the FAFSA and how to complete the CSS Profile.

There may be additional financial aid forms for you to fill out. Depending on your state, you may have to fill out a separate application to apply for state-based financial aid. Colleges may also have additional forms for you to fill out to access institutional financial aid. The best way to determine what you must submit is to check each college's financial aid application requirements. Completing all the required forms will help ensure you get the financial aid you deserve.

When do I apply for financial aid?

If you’re a senior in high school, fill out your required financial aid applications in the fall and winter of your senior year. If you’re already in college, you may have later financial aid deadlines. Check your college’s financial aid website for application deadlines. Remember: You may need to apply for financial aid every year you plan to attend college.

What happens after I apply for financial aid?

Once you’ve submitted the FAFSA (and CSS Profile if required) and completed any additional requirements, you’ll receive a financial aid offer from each college that has sent you an offer of admission. The financial aid offer will show how much financial aid you’re eligible to receive. Costs between colleges may vary, and financial aid awards may vary. Be sure to review each offer carefully to fully understand the types of financial aid, any conditions of receiving your awards, and if the total amount of your aid will cover your college expenses.


Can I afford to go to college?

Despite the news stories about rising college prices, a college education is more affordable than most people believe. Many colleges provide an excellent educational experience at a price you can manage. Public college prices are much lower than you might expect, and many private nonprofit colleges provide generous grants and scholarships to offset published costs.

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Do I qualify for aid even if I don’t get straight A’s?

It's true that some scholarships are awarded based on academic performance. However, most financial aid is based on your family’s financial information provided on an aid application, typically the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

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Are private colleges out of my reach?

Although the cost of college may be a crucial factor for you, focus instead on finding a college that’s a good fitone that meets your academic, career, and personal needs.

You don’t have to rule out “expensive” schools. Keep in mind that private colleges usually offer generous financial aid to attract students from every income level. Plus, financial aid can come from different sources such as scholarships, grants, and loans. So think about net price (not published price), and don’t be afraid to apply to colleges you think you can’t afford.

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Is my family’s income too high to qualify for aid?

Financial aid is intended to make a college education available to students from different financial backgrounds. Family income, the number of family members in college, medical expenses, and other factors may be considered when determining your financial aid eligibility. Even if you think your family income is too high for you to qualify for aid, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This form determines your eligibility for federal and state student grants, work-study, and federal loans.

The best way to get an estimate of how much financial aid a college will offer you and therefore how much you’ll really pay to go to that college is to use the college’s net price calculator. Colleges provide these tools on their websites. Net price calculators give you an estimate of your net price for a particular college (i.e., the cost of attendance minus the gift aid you might get). Learn more about net price.

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Should I consider working while I’m attending college?

Each student should consider their financial situation and the weight of their studies. Students who choose to work a moderate amount often do better academically. You may find that working a campus job related to your career goal is a good way to manage college costs, get experience, and engage with the university community.

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What's the Student Aid Index (SAI)?

Colleges figure out how much financial aid they’ll offer you, in part, by calculating your Student Aid Index (SAI).

Your SAI is a number that’s calculated using information you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The SAI is used to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid programs, like the Federal Pell Grant and Federal Student Loans. Some colleges also require the CSS Profile or other financial aid forms to) to determine your eligibility for nonfederal institutional financial aid.

The Federal Student Aid Estimator provides an estimate of how much federal student aid you may be eligible to receive. Estimates are based on your SAI.

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FAFSA Application

FAFSA Application

  • Go to FAFSA


CSS Profile®

CSS Profile®

  • Go to CSS Profile

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