How Does Financial Aid Work? A Beginner’s Guide

shutterstock_143828731-851323-editedA college education is, without question, a huge financial investment for your family. That being said, it’s important that you and your family are armed with the right resources and information in order to start estimating the accurate costs of financing your child’s education. Before you start applying for loans, grants and other forms of aid, you’ll want to determine what your family can afford and what will require some assistance.

The important thing to remember when looking at the college price tag is that there is assistance available. While college may look too expensive at first glance, there are many options available to you. Let’s start with the basics:

How Does Financial Aid Work? Here’s What You Need to Know Before You Start Applying

What is Financial Aid?

You may be wondering, what financial aid even is? Well, we’re glad you asked. Financial aid is the financial assistance that organizations, like the government, award families so they can afford or offset the cost of college. If you’re wondering where to begin, consider using a resource like your child’s high school counselor – counselors can offer resources and tips for finding low-interest loans, scholarships and more.

Types and Sources of Financial Aid

Financial aid is awarded through a number of different sources, depending on availability and eligibility. Below is a high-level example of potential sources of aid that can help your family make college more achievable:


  • U.S. Federal government
  • State government
  • Colleges
  • Private banks and credit unions


  • College merit-based awards
  • Online organizations
  • High school competitions
  • Professional clubs and historical organizations
  • Private organizations such as your employer, non-profit organizations or religious centers

To learn more about loan eligibility, visit the Federal Student Aid website for detailed information.

Applying for Financial Aid

In order to be considered for all available sources of financial aid, you will need to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA); a quick, easy and completely free way to apply for financial assistance for your child’s education. Simply begin your application by applying for a FAFSA Pin and then follow the instructions to accurately determine the aid your family will be awarded. Once your family has successfully completed the form, students can go back to the FAFSA website and enter their college’s school code to their application for detailed information, such as tuition, fee amounts and graduation rates.

How Your Aid is Calculated

According to Federal Student Aid, the largest provider of student financial aid in the U.S. “your eligibility depends on your Expected Family Contribution, your year in school, your enrollment status, and the cost of attendance at the school you will be attending. The financial aid office at your college or career school will determine how much financial aid you are eligible to receive.” You may also use a net price calculator to estimate your out-of-pocket expenses for the college your student is applying to. A net price calculator is designed specifically for first-time students and should be treated purely as an estimate.

While tools and resources like FAFSA and a net price calculator are certainly a great place to begin, working with Student Financial Services will be the most helpful option when navigating federal loans. Reach out to your child’s high school and college counselors to learn more.