Borrowing for College

10 FAFSA Terms You’ll Want to Know

10 FAFSA Terms You’ll Want to Know

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid has a vocabulary all its own—but fear not. We tapped Fred Amrein, founder of 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.


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 your parents will have separate FSA IDs.

2. Prior-Prior

It used to be that the FAFSA file date was January 1. But in 2016, the filing date was 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 report tax information from a prior-prior tax year (PPY) allowing tax information from two years ago.

3. Cost of Attendance (COA)

Tuition is only a chunk of what school actually costs. Cost of attendance includes tuition and fees, room and board, books, a meal plan, travel and other living expenses.

4. Expected Family Contribution (EFC)

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 (yay!). Grants are often need-based, while scholarships are typically merit-based. To apply for federal grants, students must first file a FAFSA. 

6. Work Study

This part of your financial aid package is called “self-help”. With the federal work-study program, 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. Grace Period

A chunk of time between when you graduate or leave school and when you have to start repaying your loans. Many federal and private student loans have some type of grace period, which is key when you’re starting out and job hunting and can help you avoid defaulting. Direct loans, for instance, have a grace period of six months. 

8/9. Direct Subsidized (and Unsubsidized) Loans

Direct subsidized loans are federal student loans for which interest doesn’t start accruing until shortly after graduation, at which time you begin the repayment process. (Direct unsubsidized loans start accruing interest the day you take out the loan—ouch.) 

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.

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