When you receive your financial aid package from a university, you may be so excited about this new phase in your life that you aren’t thinking about the practical questions, like "Does this factor in all of my associated educational expenses, and what exactly can I use my financial aid for?"
It isn’t just your tuition that financial aid can pay for, but there are certain stipulations about what kind of financial aid (grants, scholarships, loans, etc) can pay for what expenses. Here’s what you need to know.
There are several different types of financial aid you can put toward your tuition. Those are typically need-based federal grants and independent or school-based scholarships, neither of which you have to repay, as well as federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, which you repay with interest after graduation.
When your tuition is not fully covered by these financial aid types, you can pay the remainder out-of-pocket or take out a private student loan through a bank or credit union.
Work-study programs, which provides eligible students who demonstrate financial need with part-time jobs on campus, can also offset this cost. However, keep in mind that that money will paid throughout the semester, so it's best earmark it for living expenses instead of tuition — unless you can plan a semester ahead.
Room and board
Your financial aid package should take into account room and board — that is, the cost of on-campus housing and campus meal plans. Again, this cost can be covered, partially or fully, by a combination of student aid we mentioned above. Generally, any kind of aid that can be used for tuition can also be used for room and board.
If you choose to live off-campus, you may still use federal aid to cover the housing costs. But be aware that you may not qualify for the same amount of financial aid that you would receive for on-campus housing. Your school will estimate “reasonable expenses” for room and board when living off-campus. That means it’s up to you to use these funds wisely to ensure that you’re covered for the entire semester or year, depending on how funds are disbursed.
In addition to federal student aid, there are some scholarships and grants available that can help with the cost of room and board, both on- and off-campus.
Textbooks and other materials
Yes, educational expenses like textbooks, notebooks and even a personal computer can also be covered by financial aid.
Here’s how it typically works: Let’s say you qualify for the maximum amount of $5,500 available via the Federal Pell Grant award. But your annual tuition is only $3,300, and you’re living at home so there are no housing costs.
After your tuition is paid, you would receive a check, or refund, for the remainder of the Pell Grant, and you’re free to use that $2,200 for educational expenses like textbooks.
If you don’t receive a refund from student aid, you can use work-study funds or money or loan money to purchase textbooks and other materials. Many schools make your financial aid available through an account at your school bookstore.
Typically, you can’t use scholarships funds for educational expenses that aren’t tuition or room and board.
Transportation and other fees
As with textbooks, you may or may not have money left over from grants to cover the cost of transportation and other related expenses like parking fees. If you do receive a refund from student aid, this money can be used for these fees, but you may need a work-study program to cover expenses.
Typically speaking, you’re able to apply for federal student aid for your study abroad program.
At some universities, you do not have to pay additional study abroad expenses because the university basically pays the cost of the program through your tuition and room and board. But sometimes, you’ll need to pay the other university’s tuition, so it’s best to talk to a study abroad advisor about your financial aid options.
In addition, you may be able to apply for scholarships specifically for study abroad. Since you will most likely not be able to work in the country you’re visiting, you’ll need to estimate your living expenses for the semester or school year and figure these costs into your budget.
Julissa Treviño is a writer and journalist based in Texas. Her work has appeared in BBC Future, CityLab, Columbia Journalism Review, The Dallas Morning News, Racked, Teen Vogue and other publications. She enjoys traveling, playing with makeup, biking and trying new food. Follow her @JulissaTrevino. Read more by Julissa Treviño