If you and your family have saved some of the money you need to pay for your child’s education but still need more, there may be a solution. It’s called financial aid.

There are several kinds of financial aid. To keep things simple, let’s divide it into three main categories:

First, there’s money that’s given to you that you don’t have to pay back, like grants and scholarships. Second, there’s money that a student earns by working part-time, usually on campus. This is called the Federal Work-Study program. The third category is the money you borrow. These are loans that you do have to pay back. Student loans are available from three main sources: the U.S. federal government, state governments, and financial institutions, like banks. Some families also use home equity loans to help pay for education expenses.

Financial aid — the combination of money you receive, money you earn, and money you borrow — all added to the money you save — can make it possible for you pay the cost of higher education, whether that’s at a college, community college, trade school, or technical school.


Average yearly cost at 4-year college
A 2020-21 College Board study* showed that the average yearly cost (tuition, room and board, and fees) of a year at a private college or university is $50,770. The average yearly cost at public universities is $22,180 for in-state students and $38,640 for out-of-state students. It makes sense to start saving as much as you can as soon as you can.

Why costs vary
The amount of money you’ll need for school depends on many factors: the school you choose, whether it’s public or private, whether you’ll be completing a 2-year or 4-year program, and whether you’re going to be living at home or at school. The total price tag can vary significantly.

COA: A simple way to compare costs
Each year, all schools above the high school level (postsecondary educational institutions) develop a Cost of Attendance figure, or COA. The COA is the total cost of full-time education for one year. It includes the average cost of instruction, known as tuition; fees, books, and supplies; and housing and meals, also called room and board. Contact any school that interests you and ask about their COA.

Other factors to consider
Money’s not the only factor to consider when comparing schools. The fact that one school costs more than another doesn’t guarantee that the quality of education will be better. Consider other factors, such as which school has the stronger program in your favorite subjects, which one has a better reputation, and which has the kind of environment you think you’d enjoy.


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ALL ABOUT FINANCIAL AID for higher education

Financial Aid is the sum of money you receive, earn, borrow, or save to pay for higher education. There are different types of financial aid that can help students.

Grants and scholarships are often called “gift aid” because they are free money—financial aid that doesn’t have to be repaid. Grants are often need-based, while scholarships are usually merit-based.

A loan funded by the federal government to help pay for your education. A federal student loan is borrowed money you must repay with interest.

  • Direct Subsidized Loan: A loan based on financial need for which the federal government generally pays the interest that accrues while the borrower is in an in-school, grace, or deferment status, and during certain periods of repayment under certain income-driven repayment plans.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan: A loan for which the borrower is fully responsible for paying the interest regardless of the loan status. Interest on unsubsidized loans accrues from the date of disbursement and continues throughout the life of the loan.
  • Direct Plus Loan: A federal loan where the U.S. Department of Education is the lender and the maximum loan amount is the cost of attendance minus any other financial aid you receive.
  • Perkins Loan: A low interest federal student loan made by the institution you choose if you demonstrate exceptional financial need.

Loans made by a lender such as a bank, credit union, state agency, or school.

A program that provides part-time jobs (usually on campus) for students with financial need


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The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first step in applying for federal financial aid.


Most high school counseling offices can provide you with a paper copy of the application, but to speed up the process complete the FAFSA online at


You need to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible in your senior year of high school. It’s extremely important to get your application in as early as you can. Millions of students apply for financial aid every year, and many of the groups who provide funding do so on a first-come, first-served basis. The sooner you apply, the sooner you’ll see your financial aid packages, and the sooner you can make your school decisions and plans. You’ll also have more time to apply for private loans if you need them.


You and your family should fill out the FAFSA whether you think you qualify for financial aid or not. The American Council on Education found that half of the undergraduates enrolled in colleges and universities in one recent academic year did not fill out an application. 850,000 of those students were probably eligible for a federal grant, but they missed out. Don’t let that happen to you!


Here is a list of items to have on hand before sitting down to fill out the FAFSA:

  • Social Security number for both the student and parent
  • Driver’s license number
  • W-2 forms from the most recent tax year for the student and parents
  • Income tax returns for the most recent year (parents should file their taxes as early as possible).
  • Other financial info, such as any other records of money earned by the child or parent, bank statements and investment mortgage information.
  • Alien registration card (if not a U.S. citizen)


Each year you’re in school you must reapply for financial aid, since your finances and costs may change. The federal government will send you a Renewal Application for Federal Aid, or a Personal Identification Number (PIN) to apply for federal financial aid online for the next academic year. This information will be mailed to you at your home, so watch for its arrival. If you don’t receive this information, contact your school’s financial aid office.

If you’re a student who works to help support your family, be sure to share this information with your school’s financial aid office. It may make you eligible for more assistance.


It’s important to borrow only what you need to pay for higher education. Remember: a student loan is a long-term commitment and whatever you borrow, you must pay back—with interest. Extra borrowing can lead to higher payments in the years to come.

Before you accept a loan it is important to know the terms you are agreeing to. Use this checklist to research the loan before you accept it:

  • Rates and Fees
  • The length of the repayment period
  • Your rights and responsibilities as a borrower
  • Ability to make payments while in school

Be realistic about what your salary will be after graduation and estimate the amount of debt you can afford. Ideally, student loan payments should be ten percent or less of your net monthly income.

Before you borrow, explore all your financial aid options, focusing first on scholarships and grants that don’t have to be repaid.


If you’ve received grants, scholarships, and student loans, it’s important to get the most for your money by spending it wisely. Here are some tips for managing your financial aid:

You may receive some financial aid once per semester and other payments once a month. Be aware of when you will be receiving aid and in what amounts. This will help you to set up a spending plan and avoid running short of money.

Think ahead about the bills you’ll be receiving next month and during the next year. When will you receive these, what will be the likely amounts, and how long will you have to pay? Compare this information with your financial aid calendar. Make sure you’re ready with the funds you’ll need to pay your bills. Late payments can harm your credit rating for several years after graduation.

Establish a spending diary. Keep track of all your purchases for a month. Group like-purchases together and add them up. If you don’t like the way you’re spending your money, look for ways to cut back.

With the information you’ve now gathered about your income, expenses, and spending patterns, create a written monthly budget and use it to guide you throughout the month. Update your budget as your circumstances change. See the Hands on Banking topic Budgeting and Saving to learn more about creating a budget.

In college, you’ll no doubt be inundated with attractive credit card offers. Credit cards can tempt you to spend more than you can afford and interest adds up very quickly. To avoid too much credit card debt, get just one credit card and save it for emergencies. If you use your credit card more often, get into the habit of paying off the balance in full each month. Use cash and your debit card whenever possible instead of your credit card.

Apply for financial aid every year that you’re in school and continue applying for grants and scholarships. By being persistent, you’ll increase your chances of receiving this “free money” that you don’t need to repay.