Applying for college financial aid can feel like swimming in a bowl of acronym soup while reading a Dr. Seuss story. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid Link opens a new window has a vocabulary all its own—but fear not. We tapped Fred Amrein, founder of EFCplus.com and author of Financial Aid and Beyond: Secrets to College Affordability to crack the code for us.
This cheat sheet helps FAFSA terms make sense so you can fill out the form with confidence and get the money you need.
1. FSA ID: A unique username and password so you and your parents can log into federal student aid sites, track your loans and electronically sign the FAFSA form and promissory notes. If you’re applying to college as a dependent, both you and the ’rents will have separate FSA IDs.
2. Prior, Prior: It used to be that the FAFSA file date was January 1. But as of 2016, the filing date has been moved up and you can submit as early as October 1. So, this repetitive term was introduced to make it clear that students filling out FAFSA will share details on the year prior (in other words, info for 2015 when filling out forms in October 2016).
3. Cost of Attendance: Tuition is only a chunk of what school actually costs, and luckily you can get aid and loans to cover the whole enchilada. Cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, meal plan, travel and other living expenses.
4. Expected Family Contribution: Financial aid formulas look at your assets and income, as well as your parents’ assets and income and then spit out a sum for how much they think you can afford to pay and how much federal aid you might need.
5. Grant: A type of student aid that doesn’t need to be paid back (#hollah!). Grants are often need-based, while scholarships are typically merit-based. To apply for government grants, students must first file a FAFSA.
6. Work Study: This part of your financial aid package is called “self-help”: You’ll get a part-time or full-time job on or off-campus and earn money that goes into your pocket to help pay for some of your school expenses.
7. Subsidized Stafford Loan: Federal loans for which interest doesn’t start accruing until shortly after graduation, at which time you begin the repayment process. (Unsubsidized Stafford loans start accruing interest the day you take out the loan—ouch.)
8. Perkins Loan: Federal loans for low-income students that typically have low interest rates and longer grace periods for repayment.
9. Grace Period: A chunk of time between when you graduate or leave school and when you have to start repaying your loans. Many federal students loans have some type of grace period, which is clutch while you’re trying to get a job and start “adulting.” Stafford loans, for instance, have a grace period of six months.
10. Direct Parent PLUS: A federal loan that your parents or guardians may be able to take out to cover the cost of your college. Though the money goes toward your education, the loan is in their name—which means it’s their responsibility to repay.