Back to School: Financial Aid Checklist

Whether you’re a parent or an eager student getting ready to head back to school, don’t let your spirits be deflated by tuition costs—college is actually more affordable than you think! Most families would be surprised at how many financial aid opportunities exist to help reduce the burden of rising education costs.

From grants and loans to work-study programs and more, we’ve put together the ultimate financial aid checklist so you’ll be armed with a road-map to a more affordable education for you or your kids.

Quick Rundown on Financial Aid

Before we dive into our financial aid checklist, let’s quickly review what financial aid is, where the money comes from, and who qualifies.

In a nutshell, financial aid is money used to help cover any education-related costs, such as tuition, books and supplies, room and board, transportation, and other expenses. Some of the aid provided you will have to pay back with interest, others you don’t have to pay back at all. Rules and requirements can vary depending on the financial aid program so it’s always a great idea to look at all the options available and the terms that come with each so you know what you’re getting into.

Financial aid funds come from four main sources:

  • Federal government

  • State government

  • The university or college the student is attending

  • Foundations, nonprofits, and other private organizations

How Students Qualify

Who qualifies for financial aid can be broken down into two main categories: students who earn it through merit alone and students who need the money based on financial circumstances that would otherwise keep them from an education.

  • Merit: Various scholarships are often available from colleges and universities to students who demonstrate academic, artistic, or athletic abilities.

  • Need: Financial need is determined by the federal government based on the data a student provides in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Grants and work-study program funds are also often allocated to students requiring need-based financial aid.

Financial Aid Checklist

Perk up your ears and pull up a chair. We’re going to take a look at the different types of financial aid that’s available so you don’t have to reach too deep into your pockets when it’s time to go back to school.


This is the one that most often comes to mind when people think about financial aid, and it’s one of the best options on this financial aid checklist because you don’t have to pay it back. Scholarships can come from many sources, such as the government, state, or a private foundation, and are often awarded based on a student’s talent.

While each scholarship might have varying application requirements, they’ll typically require a resume of academic or volunteer achievements, a letter of recommendation, and an essay on a specific topic.

Which to apply for

In case you haven’t noticed, there are tons of scholarships available, so how do you choose and which ones are worth the time it takes to apply? There’s simply not enough time in the day to apply for every scholarship out there, and you wouldn’t want to waste time and energy.

There are a few things you can consider that will help you prioritize and find the right scholarships to apply for:

  1. First thing’s first: Complete the FAFSA right away to see if you’re eligible. This is a need-based scholarship that will determine if you qualify for any free federal money.

  1. Narrow the search down to niche scholarships. These are scholarships that relate to you in some way, whether it’s an interest you have, volunteer work you do, classes you take, your background, or anything else that speaks to you.

  1. While you can’t apply for all, you do want to make sure you put in applications for several scholarships to increase your chances of winning one.

  1. Pay attention to deadlines! Many scholarships will require application submission a year in advance, so get started early.

Another note is to be vigilant of scholarship scams. Visit the Federal Trade Commission website for more details on scholarship scams and red flags so you can avoid them.


Grants are also a source of free money and they come from either your school, your state, or the federal government. Unlike scholarships, they are typically distributed based on financial need rather than talent. If you fit the bill, it’s very likely that can qualify for a grant which you won’t have to pay back.

Federal grants

Some popular federal grants include the Teacher Education Assistance for College and Higher Education Grant, the Federal Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant, and the Pell Grant. The Pell Grant is the biggest and most widely-used federal grant program by the Department of Education. What you receive from this grant is determined by your level of financial need and how much your school charges for tuition.

Finding a state grant

You can easily find state grants available to you by using this tool from the Department of Education. Keep in mind that most of these grants will require that you first complete the FAFSA.

Work-Study Program

This federally-funded program is geared towards graduate and undergraduate students with financial need and helps them get part-time jobs so they can earn some money to pay for their education.

Here is a quick look at how the work-study program works:

  • It offers students a part-time job while they attend school.

  • Any student with financial need can qualify.

  • It’s available to both full-time and part-time students.

  • It’s offered by schools that are participating in the Work-Study Program. Find out if your school participates by visiting your financial aid department.

What will the job be?

The program doesn’t just place you anywhere, but rather it focuses on employing you in work that is related to what you’re studying in school or in civic engagement.

Federal Student Loans

Unlike grants and scholarships, federal student loans require you pay them back with a fixed interest rate. However they differ from standard loans in that they do not require or account for things like income and credit score and history. These loans are also better than private student loans because they offer more flexible repayment options as well as protections to avoid defaulting on the loan.

Who qualifies for a federal student loan

  • It requires you to be enrolled in a career school or college qualified under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965


Private Student Loans

These are loans with interest rates that come from a bank or credit union. To determine if you qualify, these institutions will require a decent credit score. If yours is lacking, you can have someone with a good credit score cosign.

It’s typically a good idea to save your private student loan applications for last, after you’ve already applied to FAFSA to see if you’re eligible for money you don’t have to pay back. But it can be a good choice if you’ve already borrowed what you can in federal student loans or if you have good credit.

Difference between private student loans and personal loans

Both private student loans and personal loans are funded by private lenders, both require good credit, both are considered “unsecured” debt, and both are paid back in fixed installments.

Despite their similarities, they also differ in a few notable ways. A few being:

  • The biggest difference is what you can use the loan for. With a personal loan, you can use it for just about anything, whether it’s for a home improvement project or a summer vacation. With a private student loan, the money is limited to be used for only education-related costs.

  • When approved for a personal loan, the money goes right to your bank account which you can then use for whatever you want. With a private student loan, however, the money first goes to your financial aid department where it is used to pay for tuition or other fees.

  • In the case of bankruptcy, the debt for personal loans can be forgiven. Private student loans, on the other hand, are much harder to discharge.

Final Thoughts

This financial aid checklist will come in handy when it comes time to go back to school. Whether it’s a basketball scholarship or a Pell Grant, there are financial aid opportunities for every kind of student. The most important thing is to plan early to ensure you put in as many applications as you can before deadlines come.

If you’re pressed for time or if you’ve already maxed out your federal aid, a private student loan or a personal loan may be your best bet.

* Please consult with your attorney, financial consultant/planner, accountant, and/or tax advisor for advice concerning your particular circumstances.  The information contained herein is for general informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as professional, tax, financial or legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts or circumstances. The information or opinions contained herein should not be construed by any consumer and/or prospective client as an offer to sell or the solicitation of an offer to buy any particular product or service.

The information contained herein was prepared for general information and educational purposes only and should not be construed as professional, tax, financial or legal advice or a legal opinion on specific facts or circumstances. Eloan a Division of Banco Popular de Puerto Rico, its subsidiaries and/or affiliates are not engaged in rendering legal, accounting or tax advice. Please consult with your attorney, financial consultant/planner, accountant, and/or tax advisor for advice concerning your particular circumstances.