written by
Priyanka Singh

College Financial Aid FAQ: Ask An Admissions Officer

Admissions Tips College FAQs 8 min read
Photographer: Kelly Sikkema | Source: Unsplash

In the following article, admissions officer Priyanka Singh answers frequently asked questions about college financial aid! For more guidance on financial aid and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


What is college financial aid?

Financial aid is funding that a student may receive to help cover the cost of attending college. There are different types of financial aid, and it could come from federal, state, school and/or private sources in the form of grants, loans, scholarships and/or work-study.

How does college financial aid work?

Students interested in receiving financial aid must submit any requested financial aid documents that each of their colleges requires. Schools typically ask for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and/or the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, which students complete through the College Board. Keep in mind, various colleges may require other documentation. Colleges use these documents to determine financial aid eligibility.

How is college financial aid calculated?

Colleges usually calculate financial aid based on demonstrated financial need, which is the difference between the college’s cost of attendance (COA) and your expected family contribution (EFC). Cost of attendance (COA) is basically an estimate of how much it costs to attend a college. Keep in mind, colleges may use different methods to determine expected family contribution (EFC), but documents like the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and other supporting documentation can help colleges determine your family contribution.

Where can I get financial aid for college?

Colleges usually determine your financial aid award based on your application and their metrics. Again, note that colleges may require certain documents to determine eligibility. Financial aid awards could consist of grants, scholarships, employment and/or loans offered from federal, state, school and/or private sources.

For college-specific scholarships, different schools may use different parameters. Some may be based on academic achievement, community involvement, or other criteria. Check with each college to find out if/how they award college-specific scholarships. Students can also apply for outside scholarships through different scholarship search engines and/or other community organizations. For loans, some students may be eligible for federal student loans through their financial aid offers. Students and families can also apply for private educational loans. Some colleges may also offer military/veteran benefits.

Can college financial aid cover full tuition?

This will ultimately depend on the cost of tuition for a particular college and how much financial aid a student will be eligible to receive. Again, students and families can also look into outside scholarship opportunities and/or private educational loans to assist with college expenses.

What forms are required for college financial aid?

Colleges typically require the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and/or the College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile, but there may be additional financial aid documentation needed depending on the college and/or your unique set of circumstances. Check in with each respective college’s financial aid office to make sure you complete the necessary documents for financial aid.

When is the deadline to apply for college financial aid?

Financial aid deadlines may vary depending on the college and/or how you plan to apply (Early Decision, Regular Decision, etc.). Check in with each college’s financial aid office to find out more about each college’s deadlines for financial aid documentation.

Where does college financial aid come from?

Financial aid can come from federal, state, school and/or private sources.

Is financial aid free?

Some forms of financial aid like grants and scholarships do not need to be repaid. Some students may be eligible for federal student loans with their financial aid awards, and those funds will need to be repaid. Any private educational loans that students and families take out will also need to be repaid.

Some students may be eligible for federal work-study, or student employment available to those who qualify. Under work-study, students are not required to work. However, they will only receive their work-study funds if they take on a campus job. Earnings are not credited directly to a student’s account but instead are paid directly to the student based on how many hours they work and the rate of pay.

When applying for financial aid, keep in mind that the FAFSA is completely free to fill out. The CSS Profile does have a fee, but students meeting certain income requirements may be eligible for a fee waiver from the College Board.

How does financial aid refund work?

In certain circumstances, if your total amount of aid exceeds the amount on your student account, you may be able to request a refund. Be mindful of what types of financial aid you receive and where those funds are coming from. For example, if you receive funds from federal student loans, you may want to apply those funds back to your loan since you will need to pay them back. If you do need to use those funds, apply them towards essential expenses.

Are college financial aid refunds taxable?

It may depend on what type of funds you received back in your refund. You may need to consult with your tax preparer to determine if your refund is considered taxable income.

How do I know if I qualify for college financial aid?

First, different types of aid may have different eligibility requirements. For example, to be eligible to receive federal student aid, students must be a citizen or eligible non-citizen of the United States and meet other eligibility requirements. If you’re not sure if you are eligible for certain types of financial aid, connect with financial aid offices to find out.

Secondly, students and families can utilize tools such as Net Price Calculators to determine how much aid a student may receive and the cost of attendance after aid. This will vary depending on the college since schools calculate financial aid differently. Also, keep in mind that the Net Price Calculator cannot guarantee what type of financial aid you’ll receive. Instead, you should use this tool to better understand what type of financial aid might be available to you.

Can international students receive college financial aid?

International students are not eligible for federal student aid, but they may be eligible for institutional grants and aid offered by the college. International students should check with each college to determine if institutional aid is available and what documentation they should submit.

Can I apply for financial aid without my parents?

It will depend on whether you are applying for financial aid as a dependent or independent student. Dependent students will still need to provide parent information to be considered, whereas independent students will only report their own information. According to the Office of Federal Student Aid, a dependent student is assumed to receive parental support, which is why parent information must be included along with student information. An independent student would need to meet one of the following criteria: be at least 24 years old, married, a graduate or professional student, a veteran, a member of the armed forces, an orphan, a ward of the court, someone with legal dependents other than a spouse, an emancipated minor, or someone who is homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

What if my parents are divorced?

Generally, colleges use financial information from both parents to determine need, regardless of divorce or separation. However, the process of completing certain financial aid forms may differ depending on the documentation. Some of it may vary depending on who you lived with during the past 12 months, who provided more financial support, if you have stepparents, etc. You can also check with colleges’ financial aid offices to learn more about financial aid circumstances regarding divorced or separated parents.

What can college financial aid be used for?

Typically, financial aid is used to cover the cost of attendance (COA) of a college, which includes tuition and fees, room and board, and/or other expenses related to attending college. Usually, funds are disbursed directly to a school’s student accounts/bursar’s office. Some colleges may include a book credit/stipend to students to help cover the cost of school textbooks, which may be credited directly to the student. If a student is eligible for federal work-study and has secured employment, those funds are paid directly to the student based on hours worked and rate of pay.

Are college financial aid and college scholarships the same thing?

In certain circumstances, scholarships may be considered a form of financial aid, but this may vary depending on the college. Typically, financial aid is awarded based on demonstrated financial need, whereas scholarships may have other eligibility requirements including academic performance, involvement, and/or other forms of merit. Some scholarships may require additional materials or supplements for consideration depending on the college.

What's the difference between college financial aid and student loans?

Some student loans are considered a form of financial aid. This particularly applies to federal student loans since they may be offered with a college’s financial aid award. Outside educational loans usually do not count as college financial aid. Other forms of financial aid may include grants and/or scholarships which do not need to be repaid, unlike student loans, which do need to be repaid.

Is there someone who can advise me on college financial aid?

Absolutely! Our experienced and talented team of export advisors at CollegeAdvisor.com will be more than happy to advise you on college financial aid. We’re excited to connect with you! Click here to get started.


This informational article was written by Priyanka Singh. Didn’t see your question on the list? Get help building your college list from Priyanka or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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