Financial Aid 101: The glossary you’ll need (Part 1)

By Lee Shulman Bierer

Students want to know if they’ll be accepted, and parents want to know how they’re going to pay for college.

College has always been expensive but a generation or two ago, the cost of attendance wasn’t as close as it is now to many parents’ annual salary. College prices keep escalating and so talking about how to afford college has become a necessary dinner table conversation.

Figuring out how much a college costs isn’t so simple. Yes, every college posts its “Cost of Attendance” – the sum of its tuition, room/board and student fees – on their website. But, the truth is most families don’t pay “retail.” The sticker price, much like airline tickets, can vary widely. Some students earn scholarships, many receive grants or work-study employment that defrays these costs and many more are offered loans through the college or university.

The important thing is to determine your family’s debt tolerance. Exactly how much money are you as parents willing to borrow to finance your child’s education? How much debt should they be taking on? What are their employment expectations after graduation when this debt will become due?

Many families want their children to have some “skin in the game” i.e., take some measure of financial responsibility for their education, in the belief that this will make them take their classes and grades more seriously.

Paying for college is difficult enough. The fact that financial aid offices have a language all their own doesn’t make it any easier.

Today’s column (A-C) and my columns for the next several weeks are basic financial aid primers. I suggest reviewing the following glossary of terms before you complete the FAFSA.

One of my favorite books on this subject is the annual Paying for College Without Going Broke by Kalman Chany and The Princeton Review. The Complete Idiot’s Guide for Financial Aid for CollegeCollege Financial Aid for Dummies  and Princeton Review’s Colleges that Pay You Back are also great resources.

Accrued interest: Interest on a loan that is not paid during the period of the loan but accumulates and is paid in installments at a later time.

Aid package/Award letter: A combination of financial aid (scholarships, grants, loans, and/or work-study) determined by the financial aid office of a college.

Alternative loan program (ALP): Loans used to supplement the fund students need to attend college.

Base year: For need-analysis purposes, the base year is the calendar year preceding the award year. (Award year is July 1 – June 30)

Co-borrower:  A person who signs a promissory note in addition to the borrower and is responsible for the obligation if the borrower does not pay.

College Aid Sources for Higher Education: A free financial aid service offered by Sallie Mae.

College Scholarship Service (CSS): This is the customized financial aid application form required at certain colleges to determine eligibility for institutional aid. An arm of the College Board and one of the agencies that processes financial aid information and applications. The CSS PROFILE considers: home ownership, K-12 private school tuition, regional cost-of-living differences, etc.

Cost of Attendance (COA): The total cost of attending a post-secondary institution for one academic year.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte. Send questions