The Financial Aid Playbook

As your college years are quickly approaching, the cost aspect is probably starting to dawn on you a little more each day. Honestly, it should be on your mind because there are some important things to consider. Otherwise, you may sign on for more than you can afford. Plus, you should know exactly how much money you’ll be committing to repaying after your college graduation. You should know what financial assistance is available to you. 

So, where do you start?

We’re going to keep it simple and break it down. Essentially, we’re giving you financial aid in a nutshell. 

What You Need To Know About Financial Aid

Before you begin your financial aid application process, you need to determine your financial needs. You can calculate this by examining the difference between the cost of attendance (COA) and the expected family contribution (EFC).

Does the college application process have you scratching your head and wondering where to begin? Contact Bright Futures for a complimentary consultation to find out how we can navigate you through the process. 

Terms To Know

As you dive deeper into financial aid research, you’ll probably come across some new terms or phrases. You may even learn some new ones by reading this blog. 

Cost Of Attendance

It’s important to realize the cost of attendance is more than just tuition. In fact, it is also referred to as the “student budget” because it is the amount of money you’ll need to live off of. The cost of attendance includes the following:

  • Tuition
  • Fees
  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Transportation
    • If you have a car, this will include parking permits, gas, car upkeep, and more.
    • Otherwise, this may include a bus pass, bicycle, rideshares, etc. 
  • Food
  • Housing
  • Personal expenses
  • Computer
  • Computer accessories
    • Headphones, case, portable monitor, etc. 
  • And possibly more depending on your needs

The cost of attendance varies depending on your prospective college(s) and your unique financial situation. Find out how Bright Futures can help you choose the best colleges to apply. Contact us today!

Institution-Based Aid

This is also known as university or college-based aid. Individual colleges can offer financial assistance to help their students. This usually comes from alumni scholarships, endowments from private donors, and other programs. Moreover, speak to your college admissions officer, any alumni you know, or other contacts you’ve made to learn if there are any inside scoops to help you navigate. But also make sure to research the college’s website for information.

Merit-Based Aid

This type of financial aid revolves around merit. That means your test scores, grades, athletic ability, talents, or other topics are the focus. Merit-based aid does not consider income or assets and is instead an avenue colleges take to recruit elite students and athletes. Demonstrate interest, speak to alumni, contact your college admissions officer, and make sure to research to find out how you may be eligible for merit-based aid.

Need-Based Aid

The most common type of financial aid is need-based. Your family’s income and assets will play a big role in determining your offer. Most state and federal financial aid is based on these criteria.

Scholarships & Grants

Typically, scholarships and grants do not need to be repaid. This is the holy grail of financial aid because you won’t need to worry about making payments after graduation. However, before accepting a scholarship or grant, read the fine print and make sure there are no mentions of repayment. Also, ensure you understand the level of academia you’ll be expected to uphold. For example, some scholarships may require you to maintain a certain GPA, stay out of legal trouble, or make other commitments to get the money.

Furthermore, be wary of companies that charge money to apply for scholarships. Some do this to attempt to lure you into sending money by saying you’re a finalist or by requesting credit card or bank account information. Scammers are out there in the wild – always stay alert. If something seems too good to be true, do your research and trust your gut.


Loans are sums of money lent by the government or private banks. It’s important to realize that loans must be repaid with the first payment required upon graduation. Government loans typically have the lowest interest rates, making them the most desirable type of loan. 


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is something you’ll hear a lot about throughout college. It is the institution where you apply to be considered for different types of financial assistance. Make sure to keep up with deadlines and fill out the application thoroughly. It’s important to note that each state has its own deadline and your prospective college may have earlier deadlines. Do your own research and don’t rely solely on the information you gather from your peers.

3 Main Types Of Financial Aid

Now that we’ve covered the common terms and phrases of financial aid, let’s get into the most common types of assistance. 


As mentioned above, loans are offered by the government and private banks. Student loans exist to make college accessible to everyone. The idea is that upon graduation, you will get a job and be able to start repaying your loan. If your financial aid is solely loans, then you want to consider what you’ll be on the hook to repay down the line. Some students forgo expensive private schools for their state public college to keep their debt at a minimum.

Grants & Scholarships

Who doesn’t like free money? This is the most desirable type of financial aid because it does not have to be repaid. If you are able to pay for college on grants and scholarships alone, then you’ll be able to use your money how you wish after graduation. While different types of grants and scholarships vary, it’s important to note that there are a ton of options available. However, before you apply for every grant you come across online, do your due diligence and be careful about paying to apply, providing credit card numbers, or bank account information. 

Employment Programs

The most common type of employment program is work-study. These are typically desk jobs that allow you to study in your downtime. But make sure you are performing the job that is given to you. 

Tips To Negotiate Financial Aid

Situations change. It’s a fact of life that is not lost on those who decide financial aid offers. If your financial aid offer is not what you were hoping for, then you can negotiate!

Yep, that’s right. You’re not necessarily stuck with the first offer that comes your way. In fact, there are quite a few viable reasons to ask for additional funding. 

New Data To Include In Application

Make sure your prospective college has your strongest data in their system. This may include test scores, GPA, rank increase, notable project, recognition, and more. If any new information is revealed after you submit your application, then contact your college admissions officer. If nothing has changed, but you’re not happy with the offer, contact them to confirm they have your correct information on file. 

Change In Parents’ Income

If there has been a decrease in your family’s income since you submitted your FAFSA, this is for you. Document the reduction in income in great detail. You may need to submit this to both FAFSA and your prospective college(s).

Major Expenses Not Included On The FAFSA

While the FAFSA application does ask for a lot of information, there may be expenses that you didn’t see an appropriate place on the form to include. Keep in mind, we’re talking about unavoidable expenses such as medical, mental health, family care, home repairs, etc. 

Choosing Between Colleges

If you are debating which college to choose, let your prospective colleges in on the situation. They may up their offer to get you to attend their school. However, you’ll need to be prepared to discuss what other colleges have offered if they ask.

Choose The Right College For You

There is a perfect college for you. However, that may not be the same college your peers are planning to attend. When choosing a college, you should seriously consider how you plan to pay for it. 

If an elite private college has always been your dream, it may be worth looking into the public honors colleges in your state. Elite schools don’t necessarily offer a better education. They just have a more selective process. 

If you need help choosing which college is best for you and your unique situation, find out how a Bright Futures counselor can help. We work with students and their families to unlock potential and possibilities that may otherwise go unnoticed. 

Furthermore, we can guide you through the college application process to ensure you are submitting the strongest application possible. Ready to find out how we can help you unlock your bright future? Contact us today for a complimentary consultation. 

Note: This post was originally published on September 8, 2016, and has been completely revamped for comprehensiveness.