Financial Aid Glossary: Learn the Lingo

Resources to help you pay for college.

FAFSA, net price, priority date—you may come across some unfamiliar terms as you start looking into and applying for financial aid. Here’s a glossary to help you make sense of it all.

Award Letter

Also known as a financial aid offer. It’s the communication you receive from a college that shares the types and amounts of financial aid the college is offering you. The financial aid offer or award letter should also include what you’re expected to do to keep the award, and a deadline for accepting the award. Colleges will send this via mail, email, or college portal.

Bursar, Student Accounts, or Student Financial Services 

The college office that’s responsible for handling billing and payments for tuition, fees, housing, and other related expenses.

Cost of Attendance

The total amount of college expenses including tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, and living expenses.

CSS Profile®

A financial aid application used by hundreds of colleges, universities, and private scholarship programs to award nonfederal financial aid funds. College Board offers this service. Read more about the CSS Profile®.

Demonstrated Need

The difference between the total cost of attendance for a particular college and your student aid index (SAI).

Enrollment Status

A classification based on the number of credit hours you're taking; for example, your enrollment status may be full-time or half-time. Some loans or aid may be available only to students with a certain enrollment status, usually half-time or more.

FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

The free application form you submit to apply for federal financial aid. It is required for all students seeking federal student grants, work-study programs, and loans. Most colleges require it as well. The FAFSA may also qualify you for state-sponsored financial aid. Read more about the FAFSA.

FAFSA Submission Summary

A summary of all the information that was submitted on your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). It’s available after your FAFSA has been processed and will provide your student aid index (SAI), estimated federal aid eligibility, next steps, and other information.

Financial Aid 

Money given or loaned to you to help pay for college. It can include grants, scholarships, loans, or work-study. Financial aid can come from federal and state governments, colleges, and private and social organizations. Learn about financial aid options.

Financial Aid Office

A college office that serves as a resource for students who need help paying for college costs. Financial aid officers can answer any financial aid questions you have and help you apply for grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study employment. The financial aid office may also offer programs to help you manage your money.

Financial Aid Officer 

College employees trained to help students and families apply for grants, loans, scholarships and work-study employment. They can answer questions about ways to make college more affordable.

529 Savings Plans

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings plan designed to encourage saving for future education costs. Legally known as “qualified tuition plans,” 529 plans are sponsored by states, state agencies, or educational institutions and are authorized by Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. There are two types of 529 plans: education savings plans and prepaid tuition plans.


A kind of "gift aid" — financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back. Grants are usually awarded based on need. Learn more about gift aid.


Money you borrow from the government, a bank, your college, or another source. Loans need to be paid back, usually over an agreed period of time. You will most likely also have to pay interest on a loan—a fee for borrowing the money. Learn about Your College Loan Options.

Merit Aid

Financial aid given to students based on their personal achievements. Most scholarships are considered merit aid, as they are generally awarded for success in school, the arts, athletics, or another area.

Need-Based Financial Aid

Financial aid (grants, scholarships, loans, and work-study opportunities) given to students because they and their families are not able to pay the full cost of attending a certain college. This is the most common type of financial aid.

Need-Blind Admission

Need-blind admission means that applicants' ability to pay for their education will not be a determining factor in the admission decision.

Net Price

Net price is the true amount a student will pay for a college. The “net price” is the full cost of attendance at a college (including room and board, supplies, and other expenses) minus grants and scholarships.

Net Price Calculator

An online tool that gives you a personalized estimate of what it will cost to attend a specific college. Most colleges are required by law to post a net price calculator on their websites.

Outside Scholarship

Also called “private scholarship.” A scholarship offered by an organization or a college. Outside scholarships are offered by all kinds of individuals, groups, corporations, and nonprofit organizations.

Priority Date

The date by which your application—whether it’s for college admission, student housing, or financial aid—must be received to be given the strongest consideration. Since financial aid is often limited, meeting the priority date or deadline is important to be eligible to receive funds.

Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC)

A program offered by the military and available at some colleges. ROTC offers scholarships to students who agree to serve in the military after they graduate. Some ROTC four-year scholarships cover full tuition and fees. The program combines a military education along with college study leading to a bachelor’s degree.

Residency Requirements

The amount of time a student has to live in a state before he or she is eligible for in-state tuition prices and state aid.


A kind of "gift aid"—financial aid that doesn’t have to be paid back. Scholarships may be awarded based on merit or partially on merit. That means they’re given to students with certain qualities, such as proven academic or athletic ability. Learn more about gift aid.

Student Aid Index (SAI)

An eligibility index number that a college's or career school's financial aid office uses to determine how much federal student aid you may be able to receive. The SAI is calculated using information from your FAFSA form. 


The official record of your course work at a school or college. Your high school transcript is usually required as part of your college admission application and for some financial aid awards.


A college student working toward an associate degree or a bachelor's degree.


A program that allows students to work a part-time campus job and earn money as part of their financial aid package. To qualify for the Federal Work-Study Program, which is funded by the government, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some colleges have their own work-study programs.