Skip to main content

How Does Financial Aid Work? A Comprehensive Breakdown

Financial aid provides funds to eligible students to help them cover the costs of education, such as tuition and textbook fees. Students may receive financial aid in the form of loans, grants, scholarships or work-study programs.
An online student learning how financial aid works as she holds her financial aid offer letter and reviews information on a tablet.

When you choose to pursue a college degree, you're making a decision that can lead to a successful career and personal fulfillment. Considering how you'll fund your education is essential to this decision. Financial aid can seem complex and overwhelming for someone new to the process, but it doesn't have to be.

Here is a guide to help you navigate your way.

Federal and Private Funding Possibilities

Many federal and private funding resources are available to help you with the costs associated with earning your degree. They include student loans, grants, scholarships and more.

Let's break down some of the common resources:

  • Federal Student Loans - The federal government funds these types of loans with a fixed interest rate. If you're exploring different financial aid options, learn more about student loans and how they work.
  • Grants - Grants are almost always awarded based on financial need and may be considered "free money,” or money that does not need to be repaid. Grants are given on the federal, state, collegiate and private levels.
  • Private Loans - It is recommended to take out private loans only when necessary. They often have high interest rates, and you may be expected to A yellow infographic piece with the text Types of Financial Aid: Federal Student Loans, Grants, Private Loans, Scholarships, Work-Studymake payments while still in school. 
  • Scholarships - Scholarships are a form of “free money” that may be awarded if you prove through written, oral or even demonstrative communication that you are skilled or accomplished. Explore the different types of scholarships that may be available to you.
  • Work-Study - If you qualify, work-studies provide you with part-time job opportunities, preferably in your field of study. These federally funded jobs are located either on or off campus. If you're interested in combining work and education, find out more about work-study and how it can benefit you.

While these are all resources that can help you, some may better suit your situation and needs than others. Reviewing your financial offer and considering other options to help you pay for college is important.

How to Apply for Financial Aid

Remember, financial aid isn’t simply awarded because you need it. There’s generally a formal application process to go through, and it’s important to know that some of these applications must be completed annually for each academic year you plan to be in school.

Here's how you can apply for federal and private funding as well as scholarships:

  • Federal Funding - You can submit an annual Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) which considers your financial status compared to the cost of attending your university. The government and the university will work together to determine a financial aid offer package containing federal student loans, grants or work-study options fit for you. The FAFSA is an important tool that can help determine how you'll pay for college.

  • Private Funding - You can request a private student or parent loan from lenders such as banks, credit unions and stage agencies. As you do your research, be sure to read the details carefully as the terms vary by organization. Different types of organizations may also award private grants, almost always requiring an application.

  • Scholarships - Many organizations and individuals offer scholarships of varying amounts pertaining to an array of qualifications. These often require applications that ask for a response to an essay prompt and sometimes request financial information. Tools such as Scholarship Universe, a database with a variety of pre-vetted scholarships, can help SNHU students simplify the scholarship search process. Once enrolled, students can access the scholarship database through an internal portal.

Applications vary in length, so be sure to set aside plenty of time to provide detailed, accurate information.

Find Your Program

When Should You Apply for Financial Aid?

You can complete your FAFSA beginning on October 1 each year, and deadlines vary by state and school. Be sure to check in with the school you're attending or would like to attend to ensure you're aware of any financial aid dates.

To maintain your funding or seek new funding, you'll need to reapply for financial aid each year you attend college. Keep in mind that dates can change from year-to-year, especially if you move to a different state or transfer colleges.

If you've applied to FAFSA in the past, you might notice some changes in 2024. The FAFSA Simplification Act reduces the amount of questions that parents and students need to answer. You may also be required to transfer tax information to the Department of Education going forward, which used to be optional.

How Much Money Do You Get from Financial Aid?

The amount of aid you receive each year depends on your level of financial need. Since financial needs and circumstances can fluctuate, your financial offer might also look different from year to year. You may also discover that your financial offer varies by school. So, if you're considering multiple schools, you'll want to pay attention to what's offered in each package.

When it comes to private funding, including private loans and some scholarships, you may also need to share your financial information to determine your need, although there are also merit-based scholarships.

Some financial aid options may allow you to hold off from taking out loans right away and instead find alternative solutions such as working part-time, applying for scholarships or saving up in advance.

How Do You Receive Financial Aid?

Donna Camire, director of Student Financial Services for SNHU Global CampusYou can receive financial aid in a variety of ways. After your FAFSA form is processed, you will receive a personalized financial offer letter containing any federal loans, grants or scholarships you can accept. You'll also learn whether you're eligible for a work-study position.

"There may be times a student needs all of the aid and other times where they do not," said Donna Camire, the director of Student Financial Services for the Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) Global Campus. "It is based on each student’s individual circumstance."

Learn more about how to understand your financial offer and what to do next.

Once you commit to a school and select your financial aid preferences, you may need to complete entrance counseling and sign a Master Promissory Note. After you've completed the necessary steps, your financial aid is typically applied toward your college expenses.

If you're a scholarship recipient, you might receive your scholarship money in a couple of different ways, depending on the organization that awarded it. For example, the money may be sent directly to your school, or you may receive it directly in the form of a check.

Tanner Shaw, a project manager on the financial literacy team at SNHUIf you receive a scholarship through Scholarship Universe, the funds will be sent to your school.

"Once you have been awarded the scholarship, Southern New Hampshire University will receive those funds from the external scholarship provider," said Tanner Shaw, a project manager on the financial literacy team at SNHU. He said that you will then receive a new offer that summarizes all the financial aid you're receiving, including scholarships, grants and loans.

Do You Pay Back Financial Aid?

It depends on the type of financial aid you accept. Scholarships and grants, for example, do not need to be paid back.

If you accept federal or private loans to help you pay for college, know that you will need to pay them back over time. Interest rates and payment deadlines vary widely, so it's essential to review all the expectations before committing to them.

Does Anyone Qualify for Financial Aid?

A yellow money symbol on a blue background According to the National Center for Education Studies (NCES), 91% of students at four-year nonprofit private institutions received financial aid in the 2020-2021 school year.

To better understand the steps involved in receiving financial aid and approximately what a degree will cost, reach out to the Student Financial Services team at the college or university you attend or hope to attend. They can clarify areas of confusion, answer questions specific to your situation and offer details that pertain directly to that school.

At SNHU, finance counselors focus on helping students understand all their options and gain financial literacy along the way. "In the simplest of terms, a finance counselor’s role is to educate each student on how financial aid works," Camire said. "Each finance counselor is equipped to answer most financial aid questions. They provide the information needed for a student to make an informed decision on how they want to fund their education."

The financial aspect of earning a degree doesn't have to be stressful, especially with the support and resources available to you as a student or parent — such as Financial Aid 101 and the Net Price Calculator.

Being unsure about the financial aid process should never be an obstacle to earning a degree.

Online. On campus. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Rebecca LeBoeuf Blanchette '18 '22G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University, where she fulfills her love of learning daily through conversations with professionals across a range of fields. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communication with a minor in Professional Writing from SNHU’s campus in Manchester, New Hampshire, and followed her love of storytelling into the online Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing at SNHU. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

Explore more content like this article

A person with blonde hair asleep at a desk surrounded by clouds, stars and z's.

How Much Sleep Should a College Student Get?

Aside from studying, writing papers and knocking out required reading, most college students have a lot of additional responsibilities. For your health and continued academic success you need to be well rested – and that means more than getting just a few hours of sleep when and where you can.
A student who is earning a BS degree, taking notes as she studies on a laptop in the SNHU library

What is a BS Degree and What Can You Do With It?

Under the umbrella of bachelor's degrees, there are two main types of degrees you can get: a Bachelor of Science or a Bachelor of Arts degree. Both degrees take about four years to complete and consist of 120 credits, but there are some differences to consider when choosing what's right for you.
A man with a light blue shirt and glasses looking up how to stay motivated in college on a laptop.

How to Stay Motivated in College: 5 Tips for Student Success

Looking for extra motivation to do well in college? Discover 5 tips from SNHU academic advisors to help you persevere and succeed as you earn your degree. The tips include pursuing your passions, staying organized, leaning on your support system, celebrating every win and embracing the journey.

About Southern New Hampshire University

Two students walking in front of Monadnock Hall

SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.