Decoding the Financial Aid Award Letter

As the deadline to submit the FAFSA to financial aid offices approaches, we wanted to discuss the financial aid you may receive. Listed below are four types of ‘awards’ typically found on a financial aid letter.


A scholarship is an award based upon student merit, meaning, students have accomplished something. This may include their high school academics, standardized test score (ACT/SAT) , or unique talent (athletic performance, performing or visual arts). Scholarships are awarded for various lengths, make sure to investigate their stipulations. Regardless the length, scholarships do not need to be repaid to the school.


These are similar to scholarships as they do not need to be repaid, but they are based upon ‘financial need,’ and the biggest reason to complete the FAFSA. These awards can be from the institution, federal or state government. There are 2 common federal grants:

  • Pell Grant: Up to $5,775 (for 2015-16 school year) to students who demonstrate financial need.
  • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant: In addition to the Pell Grant, this award is up to $4,000 for families that demonstrate exceptional financial need.

Federal Work-Study

This program is designed for students to earn the awarded amount in an on-campus job. There are ample opportunities reserved for federal work-study students. Students cannot earn in excess of the amount offered on the award letter. Most common positions are working in the admissions office, school cafeteria or recreation center.


Many time, in the financial award letter, colleges will package in loans to help defray the remaining cost of attendance. The three types of main loans are:

  • Direct Subsidized Loan: These are student loans awarded based upon financial need. They are given for a 10 year repayment period and accruing interest is paid by the Department of Education until 6 months after a student leaves school. The loan limit is $3,500 to $5,500, depending upon the year in school.
  • Direct Unsubsidized Loan: These student loans are not based upon financial need. The borrower is responsible for all interest, which begins accruing immediately. The 10 year repayment period on this loan (including accrued interest) does not begin until a student leaves school. The amount awarded is up to $2000 a school year.
  • Direct PLUS Loan: This loan is for a student’s parents or guardians. It is not based upon need and the borrower assumes all interest. The interest rate is slightly higher, but generally it will be lower than a private loan. The maximum amount borrowed is the cost of attendance, minus any financial aid received.

Remember, when comparing financial aid award letters, do not compare the amount the school is awarding the student. Compare the financial commitment of the family between schools and the amount of loans the family will have to repay.

If you have questions regarding your family’s financial aid award letter or how to prepare for the rising cost of college, contact us.

Thomas Jaworski is the lead consultant of Quest College Consulting. He is an Independent College Counselor with over ten years experience in the college admission process as an Certified Illinois Teacher (Type 09) and Counselor (Type 73) while also a member of IECA and NACAC. For more information, you can visit his website at or email him at Follow him on Twitter @Tom_QuestCC or on Facebook at

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