Federal Financial Aid

Federal grants, loans & work study programs.

Financial aid is money provided to students to pay for college. It includes “free” money that you don’t have to pay back, like grants, as well as aid you do have to repay, like student loans. Financial aid can be used to cover a variety education expenses, such as:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board (both on and off campus)
  • Books and supplies

While state governments, colleges and private organizations all provide financial aid to students, when people refer to financial aid, they are usually talking about programs sponsored by the U.S. government. Learn about:

The different types of federal aid

How to apply for aid

The timeline for financial aid

The different types of federal aid.

There are three types of federal student aid: grants, student loans and work-study assistance. Here is an overview of each.

Unlike grants, federal student loans are borrowed money that must be repaid. Federal loans should be considered before private student loans because they may have several advantages such as:

  • May have lower interest rates than private loans
  • Does not require a cosigner
  • Allows for more flexible repayment options, such as graduated or income-based repayment
  • Has expanded deferment or forbearance options

The federal government, through the William D. Ford Direct Loan Program, has several primary student loan programs for students of varying degrees of need:

  • Subsidized Loan — A need-based loan for eligible undergraduate students; the federal government pays the interest on the student’s loan while the student is in school and for the first six months after the student graduates or withdraws from school
  • Unsubsidized Loan — Not based on need for eligible undergraduate, graduate/professional students the student is responsible for paying the loan interest that accrues while in school. 
  • PLUS Loan — Specifically for graduate/professional students or parents of dependent undergraduate student; the PLUS loan is not tied to need.
  • Consolidation Loan — Lets a student loan borrower combine their federal student loans into a single loan. 

More information about federal student loans.

Grants are "free" money, or "gift aid," that doesn't have to be repaid. Federal student grant amounts may change from year to year, but recently, the grant awards have ranged between $3,000 and $6,000 — which means federal grants alone won't typically cover the full cost of college. Currently, there are several federal student grant programs; learn more about federal grants.

The Federal Work-Study program allows students with financial need to work at part-time jobs to earn money to help pay education expenses. The program emphasizes community service work or work related to the student’s field of study.

Federal Work-Study at a glance:

  • It gives paid employment while you are enrolled in school.
  • Available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students with financial need.
  • A student’s school must participate in the Federal Work-Study Program.

How to apply for federal financial aid.

To qualify for federal financial aid, you'll need to complete the federal financial aid application process.

  • Fill out an application called the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). Note: You cannot receive federal student aid without completing this application. Some state and college funding financial aid programs also require it. Consult your college’s financial aid requirements for more information.
  • You will receive a Student Aid Report, or SAR, to review and, if needed, update.
  • The federal government develops your financial aid profile, which includes your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for school expenses. EFC is not actually what you will have to pay to the college, but it is a key factor in determining financial need.
  • Your college’s Financial Aid Office will determine what aid award(s) you may receive as a student at their institution. Awards are often based on financial need. The equation for determining your financial need is the Cost of Attendance (all education costs, including tuition, room and board, etc.) minus the Expected Family Contribution equals your financial need.

The timeline for financial aid.

When Action Item What To Do/Expect

Senior Year (Early Fall)

Research colleges
  • Come up with a list of colleges you’d like to apply to. You can include them in your FAFSA (this way, the schools will automatically get your aid report (called a SAR) from the FAFSA analysis.
  • For an early idea of the aid you may receive, try the FAFSA4caster. It will help you understand some of the options to help pay for college. It’s the federal government’s calculator that provides an estimate of federal student aid eligibility.

Senior Year (October)

Fill out the FAFSA
  • Complete the FAFSA online (the FAFSA is released – generally around October 1 of each year). Both student and parent may need to work on it and each will require their own Federal Student Aid (FSA) ID.
  • Pay attention to timing: It is highly recommended you complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after its October release. Some schools have early admission and first come-first served aid programs.
  • Shortly after you complete the FAFSA, you will get a Student Aid Report (SAR).

Senior Year (Fall)

Note admissions and financial aid deadlines
  • Verify the admissions and financial aid deadlines for the colleges you are interested in.

Senior Year (Spring)

Receive school application decisions

Receive your financial aid Award Letters

Select your school

Respond to your Award Letters
  • Look for school application decisions, which can be as early as fall; but most are in the winter/early spring.
  • Compare financial aid offers from the colleges to which you are accepted to determine which you can afford and whether you will need additional money, such as a private student loan from SunTrust.
  • Keep an eye out for your award letter, which depending on your admission status, this could be winter, spring or summer.
  • Choose the college you'd like to attend.
  • Notify your selected college's financial aid office if you wish to accept the financial aid award you were offered.

Apply for a new SunTrust private student loan and you may be able to transfer the balance of an existing loan.


Learn More

A SunTrust student loan can cover college expenses such as tuition, books, fees, transportation, housing, and more.


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Important Information

Before applying for a private student loan, SunTrust recommends comparing all financial aid alternatives including grants, scholarships, and both federal and private student loans. View and compare the available features of SunTrust private student loans.

Union Federal is a federally registered trademark of Cognition Financial Corporation. Start Student Loan is a trademark of Cognition Financial Corporation. Both are used by SunTrust under license. Truist Financial Corporation (“SunTrust now Truist” or “Lender”) is the lender of these private student loans and they are not offered in connection with any other lender or the federal government. Cognition Financial Corporation is not an affiliate of Lender.

Certain restrictions and limitations may apply. Lender reserves the right to change or discontinue these programs without notice. These loan programs are subject to approval under the Lender’s credit policy and other criteria and may not be available in certain jurisdictions.

©2010 fafsa.gov. All rights reserved. FAFSA is a trademark of the U.S. Department of Education.

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Who is eligible for federal financial aid?


To be eligible for some types of federal financial aid, a student must demonstrate need. However, there are certain eligibility requirements a student must meet:

  • Be a U.S. citizen or an eligible noncitizen
  • Have a valid Social Security number (some exceptions apply)
  • Be enrolled at least half time for certain financial aid programs
  • Register with Selective Service, if you’re a male between the ages of 18 and 25
  • Have a high school diploma or GED
  • Show satisfactory academic progress in college (for those reapplying, which is required every year)

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